Monday, October 30, 2023

Children Express Grief Differently from Adults

A child can live with anything as long as he or she is told the truth and is allowed to share with loved ones the natural feelings people have when they are suffering.  ~ Eda LeShan

A reader writes: My grandchild, age 7, lost her mother almost two months ago. The other children have shown some of the "documented" signs of grief, and I understand everyone grieves differently, but I am concerned for her, as she seems to be "begging" for pity much of the time. She has told me more than once that she loves all the spoiling she has been getting as a result of her mother's death.

Two days ago, she went with me to the Post Office to mail a package to Granddad for Father's Day, and she blurted out to the clerk that she wished she could go shopping for Grandpa with her mom, but her mom is dead! She seemed to be asking the clerk to feel sorry for her. Is this normal? I have found nothing like this behavior mentioned on any of the bereavement sites I have visited. I am unsure whether I should suggest counseling for her to my grieving son, or just accept it as another stage of the process.

What do you think? Thanks for any advice you can give!!

My response: While I would not consider your granddaughter's behavior toward the Post Office clerk as abnormal, especially this soon after she lost her mother, I think her comment does appear to be a plea for attention on her part. I also think you would be wise to look past her behavior and focus on what she might be thinking and feeling at this point in her grieving process.

As I'm sure you know, children grieve just as deeply as adults, but they express it differently. Because their attention span is shorter, for example, they tend to move in and out of grief, and the symptoms of grief may come and go, varying in intensity. Their response is based on the knowledge and skills available to them at the time of their loss. Having had less experience with crisis and its consequences, your granddaughter's repertoire of coping skills is simpler, and her capacity to confront the reality of her mother's death is more limited and immature.

Your granddaughter may indeed be feeling a need for extra attention at what must be a sad and difficult time for everyone in your family. It may help to give her the extra time and attention she needs before she actively seeks it or demands it, so she'll have less of a need to express it in inappropriate ways or at inappropriate times. Grieving children need their parents' time and attention whenever their feelings of grief come up, and should be encouraged to talk about them. Because your granddaughter has only one parent now, who undoubtedly is consumed with his own grief at the loss of his wife, I would imagine that her opportunities to have her daddy's undivided attention are limited.

As this child's grandmother, you can play a very important role in being there for her, in helping her to share her thoughts and talk about her feelings. You can also model reminiscing and talking openly about how much you miss her mother. Feeling, showing and verbalizing your own pain gives your granddaughter an example to follow, while holding back implies that feelings are to be suppressed.

Reading together some of the wonderful books written just for children can be an especially effective way to encourage your granddaughter to open up and talk about her grief. See, for example, Using Children’s Books to Help with Grief. Other books are aimed specifically at adults, many of which you'll find listed here, along with several wonderful sites devoted especially to the needs of grieving children: Children and Teens in Grief: Suggested Resources. I encourage you to visit some of them, and I wish peace and healing for you, your granddaughter and your entire family. 

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