What is it?
Grief is what a person experiences when they lose something or someone close to them. People often associated grief with the death of a pet or loved one. However, people can also experience grief after any important loss in their life. It impacts people emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually. The person might feel numb, anxious, sad, heartbroken, angry, scared or guilty. They might even feel relieved or peaceful at times. They might also have very negative thoughts or act out.
Everyone experiences grief differently and for a different period of time. Feelings may also be stronger or less noticeable, based on how important the loss is.
People may feel grief when they:
- lose a loved one (a pet or loved one dies)
- break up with a partner
- move away
- have parents or other family members who divorce
- lose a job
- lose an important possession
- are diagnosed with a life-changing or terminal illness/disability
- expect to lose someone or something (a loved one is very sick)
Grief is natural, and many people start to feel better as time passes. But some people need a bit of extra support from a professional to help them through a difficult period.
How do I know?
Children and youth grieve differently than adults. Young children may not be able to describe how they feel and their age may affect how they react. A child that loses a grandparent may not seem bothered until an important holiday comes and the grandparent isn't there.
A child or youth may show they are grieving by the way they behave.
- Physical: Headaches, tiredness, numbness, crying a lot, unable to relax, nausea.
- Emotional: Sadness, anger, anxiousness, disbelief, despair, guilt, relief, loneliness.
- Mental: Forgetful, distracted, confused, poor memory, worried about the health and safety of others, difficulty making decisions.
- Behavioural: Changes to sleeping patters, dreams or nightmares, changes to appetite. They may experience unusual emotional reactions or feel weepy. They may act our or "misbehave".
- Social: Isolate themself or pretend like nothing has happened.
- Spiritual: They may question their spirituality and blame a high power for allowing this to happen. They may feel that faith is not enough.
Grief at different ages
Infants may feel grief but not understand things like death, illness or loss. They may show signs that look like separation anxiety such as:
- looking for the person they've lost
- clinging to caregivers
- temper tantrums
Preschool children may understand that someone isn't around anymore, but not understand concepts like death. They may expect the person to return. They have a short tolerance for sadness or anger so need to experience grief in small doses. It may look like the child doesn't care or isn't bothered by the loss. They might also believe that their own thoughts, actions or wishes caused the loss. The child may use pictures or other items to feel close to a loved one that left or passed away. In preschool aged children signs of grief may include:
- clinging behaviours
- act out, be disruptive, have temper tantrums
- go back to old behaviours like wetting the bed, wanting to use a bottle
- seem not very bothered by the loss
- talk as if the person they lost is still present
Children ages 5 to 9 may try to make sense of death or loss. They may start to think they can "catch" death or develop a lot of fears, like the fear of dying. They may take words literally, so if you say a loved one is "gone," the child might be angry that no one is looking for them. Children at this age may also still believe that their thoughts, actions or wishes caused the loss. In children ages 5 to 9 signs of grief may include:
- school difficulties
- lack of appetite
- fear of being alone
- have a hard time playing with friends or doing school work
- carry around pictures or items that remind them of someone they've lost
Children ages 9 to 11 may have the same general understanding of death and loss as an adult, but may not be able to express their thoughts and feelings. They may find comfort in family, and cultural beliefs and values. In children ages 9-11 signs of grief may include:
- become very quiet or very talkative (can happen at all ages)
- worry a lot about the future, their health and the health of loved ones
Young people ages 12-24 may understand death as an adult would, but have a hard time with bigger questions, like the meaning of life and death. They may feel at odds with their desire to be independent and their desire to help the family through a loss. In young people ages 12-24 signs of grief may include:
- may try hard to look "normal" to fit in with their peers
- may hide their feelings or avoid them by keeping very busy
- may turn to risky behaviours like alcohol or other drugs, thinking they can't be harmed and this is a way to "test" death
Your child's behaviour may seem odd or upsetting. The most important thing is to help them feel safe and secure.
What can be done?
Tell your child the truth in words they understand. This may help to lower feelings of fear or anxiety. Children and youth can often tell that something is wrong, and may have trouble trusting you if they feel like you aren’t being honest. Answer their questions as best you can and if you don't know the answer say that you don't know.
Make time to listen to your child's thoughts, feelings and opinions. Be open minded. Encourage your child to express their memories, fears, sorrows, relief, regrets, anger and guilt. Talking won't make them feel worse. Let them know that strong feelings are normal and it's okay to grieve.
Encourage and reassure
Validate their feelings. Activities like storytelling and play help younger children express themselves. They may have very real fears about death and abandonment and they may wonder who will take care of them. For older youth and young adults, let them know they may experience a wide range of emotions. Give them permission to laugh and feel happy if they want to.
Model healthy ways to grieve
Children and youth learn from parents and others close to them so it’s important to look at your own behaviour and think about what they may be learning from you. Talk about your feelings and accept support when you need it. If you show grief, it helps your child understand that it's okay to show grief. It also helps them see that everyone grieves differently. But be self-aware, extreme emotions can be stressful for a child and make them feel that they need to take care of you.
Prepare and educate
Help children or youth prepare for new situations like visiting a loved one in the hospital or going to a memorial service. Talk about what they will see and what will happen so they know what to expect.
Let your child decide how involved they want to be. Some children and youth may want to visit a loved one in the hospital or go to a memorial service, but others will not. Parents can also help by including their children when they talk about an expected loss, like when a relative is very sick.
Let young people find help
Young people may prefer to talk with someone outside of their family who may listen more objectively and with less emotion. This may help the teen work through their own feelings.
Keep the topic open
Grieving takes time. Your child may re-experience loss during holidays or other important times. Let them know they can talk about their feelings no matter how much time has passed.
Where to from here?
If a child or youth is having a hard time continuing with life after several months, it’s best to talk to a health care professional, such as a doctor or mental health professional. They can help the child work through their feelings. Here are signs that a child may need some extra help coping with grief they:
- aren't interested in social activities like playing with friends
- have a hard time with schoolwork or refuses to go to school
- stay very focused on the loss
- seem very sad or hopeless
- have a hard time trusting others
- have a hard time eating or sleeping
- are often scared of being alone
You can access a mental health professional by:
- getting a mental health assessment and support through your local Child and Youth Mental Health team (through a walk-in intake clinic in your community)
- contacting your Employee Assistance Plan (EAP), if you have this option
- contacting a private psychologist or counsellor
Looking for more information on this topic? Connect with a parent peer support worker at the Kelty Centre to discover additional resources, learn more about support and treatment options, or just to find a listening ear.