Grief is an individualized process; no two people grieve the same way or in the same time frame.
Published: November 30, 2018
By: Stephanie Rodda
While no one would likely minimize the importance and necessity of going through the process of grief, it may be easy to assume that a child’s grief cannot be as intense as that of an adult.
As adults, as parents, we may feel unsure of what to do when our child is grieving. Whether it is the loss of a beloved pet or a family member, grief is real.
As a foster mother for 15 years, I became well acquainted with childhood grief. No child enters into foster care without experiencing loss to some degree. One of the most poignant of memories is that of my youngest adopted son who is now a joyful, well-adjusted, kind-hearted 14-year-old.
We had been contacted about the placement of a sibling group of three. The girls were 6 and 7 years old. The boy was a little over 3 years old. When we accepted the placement, we did so with the intent of adopting although we already had four adopted sons.
J had been in foster care since birth. He was in the same loving and safe foster home for all of that time. His sisters had only recently been removed from the home of his birth family. When they arrived, the girls had a better sense of understanding at ages 6 and 7 of what was happening. It was indeed traumatic for them all, but in their case, they were escaping the dangers of the life they lived. In his case, he was taken from the loving arms of an elderly foster mother who doted on him.
At three years old, J couldn’t comprehend decisions of judges and roles of social workers and ISPs (Individualized Service Plans). He could only grieve.
I knew to give him time. I knew that he was hurting. I knew he was confused. He cried often, too often. He rarely smiled. He clung to me like glue. He slept tucked under one of my arms at night while my other three-year-old claimed his spot on the other side.
I was so sorry for him. I grieved his grief. I did everything that I knew to do from my experience of caring dozens of foster children. I prayed.
One day I knew what must be done. He needed to say goodbye to his foster mother. He needed closure. I was convinced a meeting to say goodbye would promote healing.
Finally, the day came when we would meet. I brought all seven of my children so she could see the whole family. I walked in with J and he proudly presented her with the dozen brown eggs he had collected that morning from the nesting boxes in the hen house. I had suggested he do so, believing it would bring him joy to gift them to the woman who had cared for him since birth.
She drew him onto her lap and wrapped her arms around his little body. She smiled although I know she wanted to cry. She asked questions. She exclaimed over the eggs. She began to take comfort in the fact that he was safe and loved and cared for.
He told her stories of catching catfish, collecting chicken eggs, jumping on a trampoline and riding bikes outside. He shared his new life with her and healing began. After a while, it was time to go and I dreaded the upset that was sure to follow. But when the moment came, he hugged her hard, ran to take my hand and walked out with us, his new family, into his future, his forever. He had needed closure. He could now move on.
Grief comes in many forms, and it often looks different depending on the age of the child. Jill Sexton, LPC (licensed professional counselor), the APAC (Alabama Pre/Post Adoption Connections) Southern Region Team Leader/Statewide Clinical Coordinator and a Certified Child and Adolescent Trauma Professional, shared some insight into this difficult parenting issue.
- At what age can a child experience grief?
Babies can experience grief such as losses and separation but because they can’t communicate verbally or understand cognitively why they are sad, they will express the loss by their behavior. A baby that is normally not fussy may become fussy. They may cry for what may seem like no reason.
Children up till around 7 to 9 don’t have the cognitive ability to understand the grief they are experiencing. It is confusing to them, but they still will use their behavior to express how they are feeling. They will also look to adults for understanding and the way the adult grieves can have impact on how the child grieves.
John Bowlby and Colin Murray Parkes, bereavement experts, came up with four stages of grief for children. They are shock and numbness, yearning and searching, disorientation/disorganization, and reorganization/resolution. The best advice is not to think about the age of the child, but look at the behaviors following an event that causes grief in order to meet the child where he is to help him process the loss.
- How effective are creative outlets such as art or journaling for grief recovery?
Each child responds differently to what helps them. Creative outlets are great if that is how the child wishes to process the loss. Being present for the child and available to talk, play a game, watch TV, etc. are helpful as well for those that don’t do well with the creative process. The biggest thing is to validate, emphasize, and be present with the child in however way she wishes to process the grief.
- At what point would counseling or therapy be indicated?
Again, the child’s behaviors will dictate the need for additional services as well as the type of loss they are experiencing. If the child starts losing interest in things they once enjoyed doing, sleeping more, crying a lot for months after the event occurs, it may be wise to talk to someone.
- What would you tell a parent whose child is grieving how to listen to their children and help promote healing?
Grief is an individualized process; no two people grieve the same way or in the same time frame. You may see improvement and then some regression; that is normal and okay. Be present with the child, check in with the child, validate and emphasize with the child, spend time with the child.
I think this quote by beloved child TV star, Fred Rogers, reminds us that allowing our children to talk about what they feel is vital: “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”
Stephanie Rodda is a freelance writer, author, blogger and inspirational speaker who lives in the Birmingham area with her extra-large, ever-growing family.