Weathering a stormy heart this Valentine’s Day – coping with love & loss

Emma Langham
Clinical Psychologist

While tomorrow is filled with messages of love for Valentine’s Day, it is also a day that can be a stark reminder to many children and parents that their heart feels broken due to the loss of something or someone very special. Valentine’s Day can be a very sad day for some, so keep that in mind if you are singing love from the rooftops and wondering why not everyone is joining in with as much gusto. Of course loss is the flipside of love; one will not exist without the other. So tomorrow while some will celebrate and reach out to connect with loved ones, others will be less joyous, possibly quiet and withdrawn, acting out, or ‘spaced out’. But don’t feel you need to hide your love, just appreciate that everyone is at a different stage of the love cycle.

Do children only experience grief with the death of a loved one?

Just like adults, grief can be experienced for many things. In fact children can experience intense emotions over the loss of even seemingly simple things such as the loss of a comforter, or in response to changes at school such as a favourite teacher moving on or a friend moving away; or changes in the family such as parental separation or the birth of a new baby. Sometimes children seem to have bigger emotional reactions to the smaller things in life, which can be upsetting and frustrating to parents, especially when the parents are experiencing their own grief. What is on the surface however is not usually the full story of how someone is feeling.

How does loss affect children?

The impact of loss affects children in very similar ways to those of adults, but their expressions of grief are often different, and can be missed or misunderstood. Children may cry, have unsettled sleep and bad dreams, behave in an anxious way and be clingy to parents or carers. Children may also show their distress by being angry, irritable, unsettled, or losing motivation for fun activities. Sometimes children show their distress by behaving in ways you would expect from a younger child. For example, they might start wetting the bed at night, sucking their thumb, or using baby talk (Kids Matter – Children and Grief).

The Kids Helpline website (2019) adds:

Physical indicators – Children may feel sick more often, experience headaches, stomach aches, tiredness, lack of energy or hyperactivity. You may also notice changes in their eating habits and sleeping patterns.

Cognitively – They might have trouble concentrating, making decisions or get easily confused. You might see nightmares, lack of motivation, or a decline in school performance and self-esteem.

Spiritually – Children will be curious about death and dying and may ask a lot of questions. They may start to question why this happened and where the person might be now.

Parents and carers can help children learn to cope with loss and grief by providing support and reassurance to help children understand that loss and grief are a normal part of life.

Children need support to cope

Children need lots of reassurance and support from caring adults to help them come to terms with a major loss. While grief is a normal reaction to loss, feelings of anxiety or sadness may be intense and long-lasting – especially if the child loses a primary carer, or if the loss occurs in traumatic circumstances. Sometimes, children keep grief inside until they can’t manage it by themselves any more.

Children will view safe and reliable parents as wise and all powerful, able to fix everything , able to make their world safe, manageable and predictable. However children may act out in anger at the world for destroying their hopes and illusions; at parents and other significant adults for not being able to prevent the event that is causing them pain and for failing them n not being able to fix everything (Bereavement Care Centre).

Acknowledge children’s feelings

Let children know that you understand they are having ‘big’ feelings. Go one further and suggest they might be sad, confused or angry. Let them know there is no one way to feel; and sometimes we can feel a range of feelings all at once. Recently in a therapy session with a 5 year old she likened her grief feelings to being like a ‘tornado’ that made a mess of her house (family); a lot like a ‘feelings storm’ in her heart.

Kids may behave in a way that suggests they are ‘fine’ on the outside compared to the expressive adult’s grief, leading adults around them to sometimes believe that they are ‘resilient’, ‘unaffected’ or ‘over it’. Not only is this inaccurate, but if stated out loud it can make children and young people angry at and resent the adults around them as well as toward other children who are displaying a reaction that is more expected or easier for the adults to cope with.

Comments such as “you’ll be fine”; “don’t worry”; “focus on the good times”, or “think happy thoughts” can make children feel as if their grief is not important and they should quickly move on. Children can be very eager to please their caregiver at a time of major confusion and loss, and will try to take the lead of the adults around them. If they are encouraged to put their “chin up” then they can shut down their true feelings and become more confused, and feel alone in their feelings. Children in this situation will commonly act out and seem angry.

Offer support and reassurance, let them know you are there for them, but give them options. Helping them identify five supportive people to go to when they need support is helpful – try using an open hand and pointing to each finger to name a supportive person they can talk to (encourage the child to name the adults; your ideas might be different to theirs!).

Let them ask questions

Children will usually want to talk about the situation surrounding the death of the loved one, their own feelings, feelings and behaviours of others and ask questions about the person or pet who has passed away. Some questions may seem inappropriate or uncaring from young children, however this is a normal reaction and comes from a place of confusion and fear. If you don’t know how to answer a question, suggest you check with someone else together, or that you will do some research and get back to them.

Be Honest – Our Children Need To Know

Explain that their loved one is dying, has died and how the death happened in plain language that children can understand at their developmental age. Knowing what has happened helps children make sense of the changes and and may help them find ways to cope. Avoid making up stories that glorify or minimise the reason someone has died. For instance, saying someone “went to sleep and didn’t wake up” is likely to lead to a lot of anxiety for themselves falling asleep and also fear that anyone could die at any time just from sleep (ie that sleep is fatal). Equally suggesting someone died “being a hero” may encourage the child never to take risks for fear of being badly hurt.

We might want to protect our children, by keeping them out of conversations regarding death and sickness. However, children will hear the whispers, wonder about the closed doors and wonder why they can’t be trusted to know something important. If children aren’t given facts, they piece what they do know together and will imagine things – which can be worse than reality. They may feel hurt and confused that they’ve been left out (aspects from Generation Next).

Provide predictability

Along with loss there are often big changes, especially if the person who has passed away is a primary caregiver or sibling. Maintaining usual routines and reducing the number of changes can help children to feel more secure. Parents who are struggling with their own grief will often need to call on babysitters more than usual which is necessary for themselves to have time to process their own grief reaction. Only close trusted people already involved in the child’s life prior to the grief, and daycare/preschool should be utilised for care options for children as new carers can be perceived as a threat when the child’s anxiety is already high.

Be open about your own feelings

Children are sensitive to your moods and reactions. Telling children how you feel, and how you are managing your feelings, helps children make sense of their own feelings. It is important to be real with children, but try not to burden them with your emotional needs. By showing children that you have ways of managing grief, even though you are sad, you can help them understand grief is a normal part of life. Explaining that sadness is a reminder of how special the person is to you can help them be less afraid of the pain of grief.

Encourage play and happiness

Help children find ways to express their feelings through play, writing, drawing, and music. Don’t be shocked, concerned or offended if your child ‘play acts’ death and dying – this is how children process new experiences and it helps them to better understand and manage the situation if they can act it out.

Let them know that it’s ok to play, be happy and have fun. They don’t need to feel guilty for surviving.

Let the school know

Letting your child’s educators know what has happened means they can support and monitor your child’s wellbeing at school as well as work to ensure there are stable and predictable connections with safe adults at school. It will be important to discuss with the teachers how your child’s safety may be feeling compromised and that they may not be themselves for a while. A communication book back and forth between caregiver and educators may assist for a while to provide each other with important
updates on how the child is going; especially when the parent may struggle to communicate openly about the situation when they are grieving themselves.

Stories for laying the foundation for coping before a loss, and for helping after

If children are having a hard time connecting with their feelings, or seem to be numb, blocked or perhaps even afraid to let themselves ‘feel’ the pain… it can be helpful to offer opportunities to connect with grief and loss through story books, TV shows, movies and role play.

A book my son and our family love as well as many clients I have worked with is ‘The Invisible String’ (by Patrice Karst). It offers a concept for thinking about the unbreakable bond between loved ones of any kind, even when you might not be getting along, and even if one is overseas, on the moon, or in ‘heaven’. Bonding can be an important concept for children to appreciate in any situation of separation, and can help to lay the foundation for understanding loss even before a favourite pet or loved family member dies.

The animation adaptation of the famous book ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ by the BBC adds details to the well known book by creating context at the beginning with the children’s grandfather having passed away. At the end of the book, one of children sings a song referencing the bear who is lonely with an overlay to thinking about her grandfather. The song by George Ezra at the end is deeply touching. If there’s a dry eye in the house after watching this half hour classic, then you’d best get some professional assistance!

In our home I’ve deliberately introduced a few key stories for my four year old to start understanding more the process of loss and grief. Mind you, he had a fairly big introduction to grief last year with the passing of his most beloved pet dog. The Invisible String and Going on a Bear Hunt (show) really assisted to offer him a framework for both feeling validated, or ‘normal’; that losing our fur baby was very painful; that he was gone and would not be coming back; that the love connection can be more powerful than loss and that ‘our invisible strings can reach anywhere’ – that love endures death. The stories also allowed him to be able to ask questions and be given honest answers. These frameworks also helped him understand why mum and dad were sad too when our fur baby died.

Get your own support

Sometimes your own grief will make it difficult for you to support your child. It can be helpful to seek support to help you through your own grief, whether from friends, family or a professional counsellor. Parentline can also be a great resource for parents, and is available in NSW from 9am – 9pm weekdays and 4pm-9pm on weekends (1300 1300 52).

If you are concerned that your child is not coping with a loss you should consider seeking additional help from a health professional such as discussing concerns with your local GP, Parentline or contact a psychologist. We are also available to support your family through bereavement at The Jacaranda Centre, see our website for details www.thejacarandacentre.com.au

References:

* ANU – Australian Child & Adolescent Trauma, Loss & Grief Network – http://earlytraumagrief.anu.edu.au/resource-centre/grief-and-loss
* Generation Next – Supporting Children Through Loss And Grief (Feb 27, 2017)
* Kids Helpline – Supporting a child through grief and loss (website, 2019) * Kids matter – https://www.kidsmatter.edu.au/mental-health-matters/should-i-be-concerned/children-and-grief

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