Four Stages of Grief for Children
A study by the University of South Dakota along with personal comments from Michael & Gina
Stage 1: Shock and Numbness
Whether your child is coping with loss due to death, or the news of an impending divorce or separation, they will be stunned at first. On the surface, it may appear that your child is functioning well. Beneath the surface however, they are only just beginning to cope with the loss. For this reason, their ability to concentrate or think clearly may be impaired during this stage of grieving.
Our thoughts… (from Michael)
It’s no surprise to hear that kids will be in a state of shock when they receive the news of a great loss. This is the time to be ultra patient with you kids. Listen to what they are actually saying – they will tell you a lot if you do. Validate their feelings constantly. When they tell you “I don’t want Mommy to be in heaven…” don’t correct them or disagree with them. Tell them, “I don’t either!” Give them permission to feel happy too. Sometimes kids feel like watching Sponge Bob and laughing – even though their mother just died. This is normal. This is okay. Grief and sorrow will find them. They shouldn’t feel bad because they don’t feel worse. Tell them that it is okay to feel whatever they feel. And always, ALWAYS, stop whatever you are doing and let them talk about it. NOTHING is more important. Stop talking on the phone, pull the car over, interrupt your boss… let your kids get it out on their timetable.
Stage 2: Yearning and Searching
During this stage, your child may appear restless, angry, or bewildered. They may express feelings of guilt over the loss. These intense and unresolved feelings may result in the child acting out toward others, or completely withdrawing from their social and family connections.
Our thoughts… (from Gina)
In the first weeks after their father died, my oldest son (who was 6) asked, “Did dad die because I wasn’t good?” It’s gut-wrenching to hear your child say these things. Sometimes it feels like another way the loss is robbing your child. But there is another way of looking at it. These conversations can give your child building blocks of understanding and a healthy perspective of grief that will bless them throughout their lives. I was thankful that my son was willing to express this rather than bottle it up in a festering web of guilt, but that is not always the case. Many times we have to gently lead our children to these difficult places for three important reasons: 1) to discover if they might be having these thoughts so we can offer guidance; 2) to prevent children from acting out, withdrawing or other negative behaviors; and 3) to provide them with reassurances and the right answers (even to questions they have not yet asked). In my experience, unanswered questions can manifest in behavioral problems which can really throw parents off. Suddenly, the focus is correcting behaviors rather than helping children address the root issues of their grief that have led to bad behavior.
A strong foundation of faith and a willingness to talk to kids about tough issues will give them the tools they need for processing grief throughout their lives. Don’t avoid the conversations just because “kids are resilient”, and don’t let their “acting out” throw you off course. Point your kids toward difficult issues so you can help them give voice to the complex and confusing issues surrounding grief. You may not have all the answers, but there are many great books and professional resources that can help you teach your children well. Visit our resource page for recommendations.
Stage 3: Disorientation and Disorganization
During this stage, your child may experience extreme sadness or depression over the loss.They may also continue to experience feelings of guilt or anger as the reality of the loss continues to sink in. This may manifest itself in your child’s loss of appetite, sleeplessness, and lack of enthusiasm for things they used to enjoy.
Our thoughts… (from Michael)
Our youngest was only 4 when his mom died. He was at the funeral, he “knew” that she died… It’s just that he didn’t understand it. It was months later that he stopped me from leaving his bedroom after tucking him in one night and he wailed, “We don’t have a mom!” It was as if the whole experience was finally settling in and his brian was now able to comprehend that his mother was literally gone forever. As he cried out, “We need a mom!” I could think of nothing more fundamental than that. A boy needs a mom. I simply held him, told him that he was right, and stayed with him until he was asleep. I didn’t try to give him answers to things I can’t comprehend myself. I simply let him know that he still had me, snuggled close, and that God was on control.
Stage 4: Reorganization and Resolution
During this stage you child begins to accept the loss and assimilate it into their lives. In addition to noticing that your child seems less sad, you may also notice that they have more energy, and ability to think more clearly again.
Our thoughts… (from Michael)
The signs of this stage will be very subtle and random. For our children, they began to watch old home movies of their mom and they could laugh instead of only cry. The tears would still show up at unpredictable moments, it’s just that they no longer were constant. This stage doesn’t come in a linear manner. In other words, after a certain amount of time has passed, your child isn’t going to enter this stage and not return to the others. Grief is a non-linear experience that doubles back on itself. You don’t “get over” the grief of losing your mom or dad (or husband, wife, child, best friend, etc.). Rather, you live through it.
What is very important to avoid is allowing grief to become despair. There are children (and quite a few adults) that “put on” their grief, almost like a funeral shawl, each morning. For these people, grief is almost a lifestyle – a defining characteristic of their personalities. In children this can be terribly destructive. Grieving is meant to be a healthy, emotional manifestation of the loss you experience. In time however, it becomes something in the shadows of your heart that once in awhile makes you sad or allows you a good and cleansing cry.
Make certain that your children know that it is not only okay for them to begin to live, laugh and love again, but it is their purpose to do so. Their future, their God, and their lost loved one all wish it so.
“Weeping may go on all night, but joy comes in the morning… You have turned my mourning into dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy, that I might sing praises to you and not be silent.”