When a Child’s Parent Dies: Working with Bereaved Children Part 1
“When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.”– Native American Proverb
*This blog post is written in the memory of Anise Ojeda Smith, mother, social worker, colleague, friend, daughter, sister, lover of life, metavivor. She lost her battle to breast cancer this last week and leaves behind three children.
I pause for a moment and collect my breath. This is not an easy blog post to write. It hits close too close to home, but I forge ahead, and I know that it will be helpful for many.
My preliminary exposure to the power of art for trauma and loss survivors came about in my first job post Bachelor’s degree at a domestic violence safe shelter where I got to work with child survivors of domestic abuse. Further on, in graduate school, I was fortunate to experience my practicum in a hospice setting, where I trained under skilled art and play therapists regarding how to help grieving and mourning children and their families. Since then, I have always found a way to incorporate art intervention into healing modalities for the clients I work with (if they choose). I also obtained a Trauma-Informed Expressive Arts certificate from Cathy Malchiodi’s Trauma Informed Practices and Expressive Arts Therapy Institute. I continue to learn and grow as a trauma-informed clinician, and my learning truly is life-long.
How Children’s Grief is Different than Adults
Many theorists describe grief as occurring as linear tasks and stages, particularly for adults (Worden, Kubler-Ross). However, Therese Rando was one of the first grief theorists to describe grief as a cyclical process, where an individual grieves at the stage they are at developmentally and then re-grieves at different subsequent life stages. Rando addressed the fact that regression is expected, and developmental accomplishments take longer to achieve when a child is in the throws of grief (Rando, 1991).
Children Grieve in the Developmental Stage They Are In
According to Rando and other grief theorists, the grieving child will experience and process the loss of a caregiver at various developmental milestones following the loss. The opportunity to process and re-process the loss many times will facilitate healthy coping as each developmental stage proceeds. Children and teens have very different cognitive and emotional capacities to grieve compared with adults, based upon their developmental stage. For example, when a child is very young, death is seen as a reversible disruption. A child of three has quite egocentric and magical thinking which may lead the child to believe she caused her mother to die of cancer, for example (Keith, 2007).
Cycles of Children’s Grief
Many theorists believe the following cycles/stages of grief apply to children (Jewett-Jarratt, 1994):
- Disorganization – A child might show regression, temper tantrums, exaggerated fears (in younger children). Physical symptoms, poor concentration and mood swings are common in older children/teens. This stage is considered a crisis for children but the child can be helped through this stage by loving, attentive caregivers and helpers.
- Transition – Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and despair follow the stress and chaotic behaviors of the disorganization stage. Many children and teens exhibit clinical depression. Common symptoms include withdrawal, aggression, and poor performance in school.
- Reorganization – Children/teens begin to have more energy and motivation for moving forward to a positive resolution for their grief. When painful feelings are expressed, their “held” trauma is released. Detachment becomes possible.
What Do Children Need to Support Their Grief?
Grief specialists agree that children/teens need the following:
1- The presence of consistent, loving connected people
2-Children need help putting the loss into a narrative. Sometimes younger children do not yet have the emotional language to do this- Thus, brain-wise interventions which include play/art therapy are very helpful (Jewett-Jarrat, 1994).
3-Caregivers need to be aware the developmental upsurges of grief come and go in revisiting the loss.
4-Children and teens may benefit from anticipatory grief and bereavement counseling and therapy groups. If you discover that a child/teen is experiencing problems with regulation of affect, aggression, and over-sense of responsibility/guilt, connect child/family with skilled compassionate grief therapists.
“Some of us think holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go.” Hermann Hesse
**My next blog post will focus on specific brain-wise art intervention strategies that are helpful for the grieving and mourning child/teen.** Stay tuned…
Jewett-Jarratt, C. (1994). Helping children cope with separation and loss, Harvard Common Press.
Kubler-Ross, E.(2014). On grief and grieving; finding the meaning of grief through the five stages of loss, Scribner Publishing.
https://www.trauma-informedpractice.com/ Cathy Malchiodi’s Trauma-Informed Practices and Expressive Arts Therapy Institute
Rando, T. (1991). How to go on living when someone you love dies, Bantam Publishing.
Worden, W. J. (2008). Grief counseling and grief therapy; fourth edition: a handbook for the mental health practitioner. Springer Publishing Company.
Schneider, A. (2018). When a Child’s Parent Dies: Working with Bereaved Children Part 1. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 26, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/savvy-shrink/2018/03/when-a-childs-parent-dies-working-with-bereaved-children-part-1/