The Journey Through Grief and Loss

Helping Yourself and Your Child When Grief Is Shared

Robert Zucker, M.A., L.C.S.W.

St. Martin's Griffin

Death Changes Everything

The world as you once knew it is shattered by a death that has left a profound void in your life. Whether this death was sudden or you had time to prepare, you are probably feeling disoriented and in deep shock. As a parent, however, there is a particular gravitas to your grief: A child you love is sharing your loss. Even as this most profound of losses is shaking you to the core, you must somehow rise to the challenge and assist your child, who is also grieving

Like adults, children grieve when someone close to them dies. Whether your child has lost a parent or a sibling, a grandparent or a dear friend, you need to be there to provide support, guidance, reassurance, honesty, and patience. Most important, you need to provide a strong and loving presence.

There Are Many Faces of Grief

The first step of your journey through grief is to appreciate that you and your child may grieve differently. There are as many ways to grieve as there are grievers, so don’t try to fit your grief into anyone else’s mold or expectations. While some grievers cry day and night, others feel completely numb. While some are exhausted and feel the need to nap frequently, others may stay awake for days. Some may be ravenously hungry while others have no appetite at all. Some need to talk while others long for solitude, and some experience heightened libido while others lose all interest in sex. In later chapters we’ll look closely at various styles of adult grief, for now it’s simply important to remember that for both children and adults, normal grief has many faces.

How Children Perceive Death

Children grieve differently from adults. Up to the age of ten, they will typically have difficulty understanding what death means. There are three reasons why this is so:

1. Young children often aren’t given accurate, age- appropriate information about what death means.

2. It takes them a long time to fully appreciate the meaning of death itself, since they have trouble grasping some basic concepts about death.

3. Young children are likely to blame themselves unnecessarily whenever someone they love dies. This is called "magical thinking."

Children of all ages tend to believe they have somehow caused the death, and correcting this view is different for younger ones than it is for preteens and teens.

Later in this book we’ll go over how to explain the facts of a death clearly and accurately to a child of any age. For now, we’ll simply focus on what helps kids of various ages understand the concept of death. In a quick summary:

• Preverbal children often need comfort more than words.

• Two- to five- year- olds typically struggle with the fundamental concepts that determine a death and require loads of patience.

• Six- to nine- year- olds tend to become overwhelmed by the notion that death is universal, benefiting from appropriate information and a great deal of reassurance.

• Preteens grasp the concept of death but tend to intellectualize their loss. They need to be listened to and respected.

• Teens often bring a tricky emotional package to their grief and require careful attention and support.

The Three Phases of Grief

There are three rather predictable phases on the grief journey for adults and children alike:

Phase One: Early Grief: During early grief you may struggle to come to terms with the reality of what has happened. Consequently, your earliest reactions might be a defiant denial, high anxiety, or numbness.

Phase Two: The Second Storm of Grief: Often occurring around six months after a death, the second storm is a time of renewed deep pain. This phase of grief may seem unbearable, and you may even wonder if you will survive the storm.

Phase Three: The Search for Meaning: Eventually, you start to shape a new and meaningful life despite your loss. Sometimes during this phase you may even feel gratitude for lessons learned on the journey.

Since grief is not a linear pro cess, these phases often overlap. Adults, for example, may grapple with painful feelings while still denying that the death ever happened, or may discover a new purpose in life even while dealing with painful or unresolved memories. And children may struggle with the pain of a loss before they are fully capable of understanding the concept of death.

Grief Does Not Come with an Expiration Date

It was Robert Benchley who said, "Death ends a life, not a relationship." Learning to go on after loss often means rethinking your relationship with the one who has died. For many, both adults and children, religious belief contributes to the ability to think of the dead in heaven or in some other celestial context. For others, the dead hold a place in their hearts, which inspires them to live well in their memory.

Even once you have made peace with your loss, you may still experience surges of painful grief, called triggers. These may occur on anniversary dates, like birthdays and dates of death, or (even many years after a death) during significant life transitions: high school graduation, marriage, births of children and grandchildren, divorce, retirement. Sometimes, too, the dead return in waking visions, in dreams, or in other seemingly unexplainable ways. The old notion of needing to let go and move on as quickly as possible after a death may no longer be as relevant as establishing ongoing relationships with those who have died. No matter what age you are when the loss occurs, grief may actually be a lifelong pro cess. And perhaps, when someone you cared for deeply has died, it should be.

Preparing for the Journey That Lies Ahead

Grief is tough for everyone; it’s even more difficult when you are also concerned about your child or children. This book will help you to prepare for the great journey ahead of you, and to take heart knowing that you and your child have much to gain by walking together, hand in hand.

Excerpted from The Journey Through Grief and Loss by Robert Zucker.
Copyright 2009 by Zucker, Robert.
Published in August 2009 by St. Martin?s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.