Childhood Losses: Helping Children Cope

Grief is an emotional reaction to the loss of a person or thing. It can also be an emotional reaction to the loss of a dream or hope. Loss is part of life, yet so many people are uncomfortable talking about it. They push the subject into the background and try to hide how they feel. Children who have suffered loss of any kind may try to protect their parents and try to be "strong" for them. This denial of mourning and expression may lead to devastating behaviors later in life.

If loss and grief is never dealt with in a healthy way as a child, we often become bitter, depressed people who drown in self pity and spend time living in the past, regretting today and worried about tomorrow. Those persons always feel misunderstood and look to others to fulfill their needs - which are never met. We are responsible for our own needs and happiness.

When we think about grief and loss, most think it happens only if someone close to us dies. That is true, of course, but there are other losses as well that have the same reaction.

Children are constantly being exposed to so much loss that they grieve and mourn more than we think. The death of a pet, moving to a new neighborhood and entering a different school with new teachers and classmates, divorce of parents, loss of a special toy or even the loss of their first tooth. These are all losses, different in degree but not so in feelings.

Children at certain ages interpret loss in different ways. Children from three to six have a poor idea of time and permanence.To them, death or loss is not permanent. From ages six to nine, they realize that death or loss exists and is final, but may believe that it happens to others, but not to them. After the age of nine, children understand that death or loss is final, they may learn to fear it.

So what can someone do if their child is facing a loss? There are four stages that have to be carried out for the child in order that he/she be able to grow and learn from the experience.

  1. Children need to make sense of the loss, that is, they have to understand that it is real. Let them know that life will be different, but remembering and commemorating can be a very concrete way to keep that thing or person in their mind.
  2. Let them talk - let them feel the pain. Growth comes through experiencing hurt and acknowledging that it is there.
  3. Let them learn that life is not the same and help them to turn the emotional energy into life again.
  4. Acceptance and carrying on is the task that at last will emerge.

One can compare emotional pain and hurt to a physical wound. A cut or incision in time will heal. The scar will remain. The scar is the reminder of the event that occurred, but we can go on, maybe even healthier than before. Through honesty and acceptance of each child's feelings, the loss will help the child to learn how to cope with life as they grow into adulthood.

Copyright 1994,1995 Lovina Pivin
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