October 27, 2017 – What does a grieving child or teen look like?
A grieving child looks exactly like every other child. You’d be hard pressed to pick a young person who is grieving out of a class photo. Kids that experience the death of a loved one are still kids. There is no typical way for a child to grieve. Just because a child is smiling and playing after a death, it doesn’t mean they aren’t grieving. Young people feel death just as keenly as adults; they just tend to do it in spurts. They may be crying one moment, then seem perfectly content the next; appear to be back in the swing of things at school one morning, then suddenly disengaged in the afternoon. Young people grieving need the space to process their loss in their own way, and in their own time.
The loss of someone significant in a child’s life doesn’t identify who that child is or will be. It’s just another aspect of their life to be recognized and acknowledged. Which is why the month of November is recognized as Children’s Grief Awareness Month: an entire month dedicated to recognizing their grief and need for support after a death.
It’s hard for any young person to experience the death of a loved one. Research shows that a child losing a parent or sibling is one of the most traumatic things they can experience. When that loved one has died by suicide, the processing of that loss becomes even more complicated.
Children and teens are resilient: often more resilient than we may think. A common assumption made by many adults is that kids can bounce back from such trauma, almost in the same way younger people can heal from a sports injury faster than older people.
This doesn’t mean kids and teens can easily bounce back to their normal routine after the death of a loved one. Often, kids still processing a loss will be told, “It’s been a month; time to get over it,” or, “Focus on your math homework; it’s more important.” But to that child or teen, what could be more important than the dawning realization that they will never see their loved one again? This type of impatience on the part of adults can further breed feelings of isolation and loneliness.
After a suicide loss, many young people find themselves starting to be identified by that loss: “John is the kid whose father died by suicide.” In reality, John is still John. He still wants to do the things he loves, but may now feel guilt or even shame in participating in those things.
Recently, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention collaborated with The Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children and Adults to create a handbook filled with practical information for adults supporting young people grieving a suicide death. It’s important that in supporting these children, adults model coping behaviors, empower them to do the things they love, and best prepare them to healthily continue on with their lives while recovering from their loss.
Children’s Grief Awareness Month provides us with a unique opportunity. It is a moment during which we can spread awareness – through social media, by wearing blue or attending events, or simply through conversation – that young people are not alone in their grief journey, and that it is not appropriate to simply expect them to “get over” their feelings of loss.
We use this month to reinforce the needs of grieving children, and let parents, professionals, guardians and caregivers know how important it is to give grieving children and teens the space to connect with their peer group, feel the warmth from our care, and be given the space they need to grieve in their own way, in their own time.
To learn more about how you can show your support for grieving children during the month of November visit The National Alliance for Grieving Children.
Schools seeking best practices for healing after a suicide loss in their community can look to AFSP’s After a Suicide: A Toolkit for Schools, produced in collaboration with the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
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