Renowned author and educator Alan Wolfelt redefines the role of the grief counselor in this guide for caregivers to grieving children. Providing a viable alternative to the limitations of the medical establishment’s model for companioning the bereaved, Wolfelt encourages counselors and other caregivers to aspire to a more compassionate philosophy in which the child is the expert of his or her grief—not the counselor or caregiver. The approach outlined in the book argues against treating grief as an illness to be diagnosed and treated but rather for acknowledging it as an event that forever changes a child's worldview. By promoting careful listening and observation, this guide shows caregivers, family members, teachers, and others how to support grieving children and help them grow into healthy adults.
About the Author
Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD, is a speaker, a grief counselor, and the director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition. He is the author of numerous books on grief, including Companioning the Bereaved, Creating Meaningful Funeral Ceremonies, Healing the Bereaved Child, Healing Your Grieving Heart, Understanding Your Grief. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.
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Companioning the Grieving Child
A Soulful Guide for Caregivers
By Alan D. Wolfelt
Center for Loss and Life TransitionCopyright © 2012 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
10 Common Misconceptions about Grief
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The following misconceptions may seem harmless, but I have found that when adults (and subsequently the children in their care) internalize them, they quickly become hurdles to healing. You might think of them as weeds in the grief garden. If they are allowed to grow unchecked, their aggressive habits will soon overtake the garden, choking out the impressionable seedlings.
As a fellow grief companion, I hope you'll join me in helping to dispel these misconceptions.
Grief Misconception #1
Grief and mourning are the same experience.
People tend to use the words "grief" and "mourning" interchangeably. However, there is an important distinction between the two — a distinction that becomes all the more critical for those who work with bereaved children.
Grief represents the thoughts and feelings that are experienced within children when someone they love dies. Grief is the internal meaning given to the experience of bereavement. Mourning, on the other hand, means taking the internal experience of grief and expressing it outside oneself. Another way to think of mourning is "grief gone public," or "sharing one's grief with others." Because grieving children mourn more through their behaviors than they do through words, mourning for them is not expressed in the same ways it is for adults.
When people actively grieve and mourn, there is movement. In other words, their emotions are in motion. The term "perturbation" refers to the capacity to experience change and movement. To integrate grief, children must be touched by what they experience. When they cannot feel a feeling, they are unable to be changed by it, and instead of perturbation, they become "stuck." When stuck, children carry their grief rather than release it, sometimes into adulthood. Yet when children actively mourn, they open their hearts to love and the feelings of loss. This openness welcomes a transformation of living and loving.
We often refer to children as "forgotten mourners." Why? Because though children grieve, we as a society often do not encourage them to mourn. As we companion, we have the responsibility and the privilege to create conditions in which children can mourn.
Grief Misconception #2
Children only grieve for a short time.
Many adults simply do not understand that grief and mourning are processes, not events. Those adults who want the bereaved child to "hurry up" and "get over it" usually project that the child needs to be strong and stoic. (Of course, who are these adults really protecting? Themselves. If adults can assume the child's grief and mourning are short in duration, then they don't have to walk with the child as he encounters the pain of loss.)
I have read in professional texts comments like, "If the child's symptoms persist past six months, he or she should be referred for professional assistance." Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Around six months after a death, it is not unusual to see more, not fewer, visible signs of mourning in a child. This is largely because for children, grief gets intertwined with the developmental process. If I'm just five years old when I first come to grief, that grief will change for me as I mature and begin to understand it with more cognitive depth.
So how long should a child's grief last? If ideal conditions exist (which they rarely do) and the child is actively working on his six needs of mourning with the support of caring adults and family members, active mourning can still take three to four years. And even that lucky child will encounter intermittent mourning as he develops and reintegrates his grief experience. Remember — grief waits on welcome, not on time!
My best counsel is this: Keep in mind that grief does not have a definite end. Only as the child participates in authentic mourning will it erupt less frequently. Strive to be a long-term stabilizer in the child's life as he grows and develops. He will teach you that there will be some more natural times when he wants to do more "catch-up" mourning.
Grief Misconception #3
A child's grief proceeds in predictable, orderly stages.
Have you ever heard a well-meaning but misinformed someone say of a grieving child, "He's in stage two"? If only it were that simple! People use the "stages of grief" to try to make sense of an experience that isn't as orderly and predictable as we would like it to be.
The concept of "stages" was popularized in 1969 with the publication of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross' landmark text On Death and Dying. Kübler-Ross never intended that people should interpret her "five stages of dying" literally. However, many people have done just that, not only with the process of dying, but with the processes of bereavement, grief, and mourning as well.
No two children are alike. No two children will grieve and mourn in the same way. As caring adults, we only get ourselves in trouble when we try to prescribe what a child's grief and mourning experiences should be.
A good gardener doesn't approach his garden with textbook in hand and say, "Well, today I must water thoroughly and thin the new seedlings." Instead, he examines the garden on hands and knees and only then decides what is needed that day. Likewise, the grief gardener encourages the bereaved child to teach her about the child's needs: "Teach me about your grief, and I will be with you. As you teach me, I will follow the lead you provide and attempt to be a stabilizing and empathetic presence."
To think that one's goal is to move children through the stages of grief would be a misuse of counsel. Children experience a variety of unique thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as part of the healing process. We must remind ourselves not to prescribe how and when they should mourn, but allow them to teach us where they are in the process.
Grief Misconception #4
Infants and toddlers are too young to grieve and mourn.
In my experience, any child old enough to love is old enough to grieve and mourn. In fact, I see children as young as eighteen months old in my counseling center.
Infants and toddlers are certainly capable of giving and receiving love. While they cannot verbally teach us about their grief, they protest their losses in a variety of ways. A few practical examples are regressive behaviors, sleep disturbances, and explosive emotions. John Bowlby's research has shown us that even babies will protest when threatened with separation, death, or abandonment.
Unless we support and nurture infants and toddlers when they are confronted with the loss of a primary relationship, they can develop a lack of trust in the world around them. Holding, hugging, and playing with them are the primary ways in which we can attempt to help young children. We can also teach the parents of grieving infants and toddlers how best to care for them. For more on infant and toddler and grief, see the box starting on p. 42.
Grief Misconception #5
Parents don't have to mourn for their children to mourn.
My experience has taught me that parents and other significant adults in a child's life have the biggest influence on the child's own grief experiences. The problem comes when these parents, however loving and well-intentioned, try to conceal their own grief and mourning from their children in an attempt to protect them from more pain. This is a mistake. Modeling is a primary way in which children learn.
Children instinctively love and try to emulate their parents. So when the parents deny their own grief, they teach their children to do the very same thing. When Mom or Dad is openly sad, children learn that mourning is OK and that the sadness everyone is feeling is not their fault. Children who haven't been taught these things will often assume they are responsible for the emotional environment of the household.
One of the most loving things we can do as bereaved adults is allow ourselves to mourn; the first step in helping grieving children is to help ourselves. In fact, our ongoing ability to give and receive love depends on our willingness to mourn in healthy ways.
Grief Misconception #6
Grieving children grow to be maladjusted adults.
Grieving kids heal and grow with early support and compassionate care. Historical research may have us believe otherwise. Since the 1930s, numerous studies have attempted to establish relationships between childhood bereavement and later adult "mental illness" (depression, psychosis, sociopathic behavior). More recently, however, analyses of the research literature have questioned these results because of methodological problems with the studies.
Still people perpetuate this misconception. You may have witnessed this when adults approach bereaved children with this patronizing attitude: "You poor child. You will be forever maimed by this experience."
I repeat: Grieving children are not damaged goods. In my own experience, if adults create conditions that allow a child to mourn in healthy ways, there's no reason for the self-fulfilling prophecy that the child will be irreparably harmed by the death. I do agree that bereaved children are at risk for emotional problems, but only if they are not compassionately companioned in their grief journeys. If we create conditions that help children mourn well, they'll go on to live and love well.
Grief Misconception #7
Children are better off if they don't attend funerals.
Adults who have internalized this misconception create an environment that prematurely moves children away from grief and mourning. The funeral provides a structure that allows and encourages both adults and children to comfort each other, openly mourn, and honor the life of the person who has died.
Meaningful funerals form the foundation for healthy mourning just as properly prepared soil forms the foundation of a healthy garden. If we skip these crucial first steps, we fail to prepare adequately for the future.
Children, who after all are mourners too, should have the same opportunity to attend funerals as any other member of the family. They should be encouraged to attend, but never forced. I emphasize the word "encouraged" because some children are anxious when experiencing something unknown to them. Through gentle encouragement, loving adults can help grieving kids know they will be supported during this naturally sad and frightening time in their young lives. The funeral can even provide an opportunity for children to express their unique relationship with the person who has died by including a ritual of their own during the service. (For more on children and funerals, see p. 54.)
Helping Children with Funerals Brochure
This brochure, available through the Companion Press bookstore, gives families and caregivers helpful tips on companioning infants and toddlers through grief and mourning. Visit www.centerforloss.com and click on Brochures to select and order. This brochure is a part of The Helping Series which offers 35 brochures on different topics for easy distribution to clients and families.
Grief Misconception #8
Children who cry too much are being weak and harming themselves in the long run.
Crying is the body's natural and cleansing response to sadness. It helps children release internal tensions and allows them to communicate a need to be comforted.
Children may repress their tears (and other emotional releases) either because they have internalized adult demands for repressing feelings, or they have observed that the adults around them repress their own tears. Unfortunately, many adults associate tears of grief with personal inadequacy and weakness. When bereaved children cry, adults often feel helpless. Out of a wish to protect the children (and themselves) from pain, well-meaning, misinformed adults often discourage crying through comments like, "You need to be strong for your mother," or "Tears won't bring him back," and, "He wouldn't want you to cry."
Another purpose of crying is postulated in the context of attachment theory, wherein tears are intended to bring about reunion with the person who has died. When a grieving six-year-old cries, he may be thinking (consciously or unconsciously) that his dead mother will return to comfort him. After all, she always hugged and kissed him when he cried before. The frequency and intensity of crying eventually wanes as the hoped-for reunion does not occur.
Tears are not a sign of weakness in children or adults. In fact, when bereaved children share tears they are indicating their willingness to do the work of mourning. As grief gardeners and other loving adults, we can better assist children by crying ourselves when we feel the need to.
Grief Misconception #9
Children are too young to understand death and religious beliefs about death.
Perhaps you have heard an adult say, "I'll just tell them he's gone to Heaven and that will take care of it." If only it were that simple! As one eight-year-old girl asked me, "If Grandpa is in Heaven, why did we put him in the ground?" Teaching abstract concepts about death and religion is no easy task, but it's one we must take seriously as we try to help bereaved children.
Grieving children need age-appropriate care. It is true that children are too young to completely understand death and the religious and spiritual belief systems surrounding death. Only over time will children assimilate these beliefs, and this developmental limitation must be respected. But no matter the specific beliefs of the family, the child must first be helped to understand that the person has died and cannot come back. It is a mistake to suggest that children need not mourn because the person who died "is in a better place anyway." To discourage children from mourning in this way is to set them up for a multitude of complications.
Many children naturally become frightened when they hear that after death people go to some poorly defined place (such as "the sky") for some poorly defined reason. For example, several times after a child has died I have learned that the surviving children — siblings and friends — had been told by their parents or church pastor that God needed a little boy or girl in heaven, so the child was "taken." I have counseled several children who were counting the days until they too would be "taken." Not surprisingly, these children were having trouble sleeping and were experiencing generalized feelings of anxiety. This kind of misguided communication can have long-term damaging effects on the child's emotional well-being.
In sum, caring adults need not feel guilty or ashamed if they cannot give specific definitions of God and Heaven, or what happens after death. Openness to mystery is valuable not only in teaching about death, but in teaching anything about life. On the other hand, neither should we proffer pseudo-explanations that may frighten or confuse children.
Grief Misconception #10
We should help children get over their grief.
Healthy mourning necessarily takes a long time — months, years and even lifetimes. In fact, children never overcome grief; they live with it and work to reconcile themselves to it.
As the bereaved child goes about his work of mourning, he begins to realize that life will be different without the person who died. Hope for a continued life emerges as the child is able to make commitments to the future, realizing the dead person will never be forgotten, yet knowing that his life can and will move forward.
No, children do not get over grief; they learn to live with it. Those who think the goal is to "resolve" grieving children's grief become destructive to the healing process.
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Being surrounded by adults who believe in these misconceptions invariably results in a heightened sense of isolation and alienation in bereaved children. A lack of support in the work of mourning destroys much of the grieving child's capacity to enjoy life, living, and loving. Bereaved children will experience the healing they deserve only when we, as individuals and as a society, are able to dispel these misconceptions.CHAPTER 2
Mourning Styles: What Makes Each Child's Grief Unique?
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No one, adult or child, grieves exactly as anyone else does, nor does one person grieve the deaths of different people in his or her life in the same way. Grief is never the same twice.
The companioning model I use when working with grieving children assumes that they know best about their own personal grief experiences. As caring adults and professional caregivers, our job is to observe their behaviors and listen to what they have to say — and to learn from them. Our job is never to prescribe what a bereaved child should be thinking or feeling. Instead, it is our job to listen and watch as she teaches us what her grief journey is like.
The factors that influence a child's grief are important things to listen and watch for. At times children themselves teach us about these influences, while at other times we can glean this information from significant adults in the grieving child's world. This chapter explores some of the main factors that influence the grief of children (though all influence the grief of adults, as well).
Of course, you will want to keep in mind that children do not enter my office announcing, "Today I would like to discuss some of the influences on my mourning." Nonetheless, it is my responsibility to patiently, compassionately, and gently encourage them to teach me about these influences.
I find it helpful to remember the grief gardening concept as I learn about these many influences over time. I use my rake, hoe, or sometimes even my shovel as we dig gently around the edges of the child's pain. The concept of gardening pulls me back from a more traditional model of assessment in which I might be tempted to ask too many direct questions of the child.
Excerpted from Companioning the Grieving Child by Alan D. Wolfelt. Copyright © 2012 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Center for Loss and Life Transition.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 10 Common Misconceptions about Grief 25
Chapter 2 Mourning Styles: What Makes Each Child's Grief Unique? 33
Chapter 3 Sad/Scared/Mad/Tired/Glad: How a Grieving Child Acts, Thinks, and Feels 59
Chapter 4 How the Grieving Child Heals: The Six Reconciliation Needs of Mourning 85
Chapter 5 Techniques for Counseling Grieving Children 99
Chapter 6 A Family Systems Approach to Companioning the Grieving Child 113
Chapter 7 Helping Grieving Children at School 125
Chapter 8 Companioning the Grieving Adolescent 137
A Final Word 149
My Grief Rights 150