Loss can come in many forms for your child. A divorce may separate her from a primary caregiver. Her best friend may move to another city. And death, the great equalizer, may claim one of her close family members. All humans must deal with the troubling issue of loss at one point or another. Grieving is a natural human condition - it helps us come to terms with the things we've lost and put the past behind us. Like any other mechanic for dealing with adversity, the ability to grieve is not something that is inherent; it is learned. Children learn to grieve by watching their parents, relatives and peers. Grieving isn't simply the act of mourning loss, however. Anyone can do that, and it doesn't take any training. Grieving, rather, is the act of mourning something that is lost, recognizing that it is a permanent loss and accepting that it is gone forever. It may take months or years, but unless a person who has lost someone has accepted the loss and agreed to move on with their life, they can still be said to be grieving. For children, this is tricky territory. They have no mechanisms for handling this type of emotion, and without proper guidance their emotions may cause permanent psychological damage. A young child who has lost a mother or father can be affected for life if the grieving cycle is never completed. Not all children grieve in the same way, however. For instance, one of the first steps in the grieving process is questioning why the event happened. Whereas adolescents may need concrete, physiological explanations for why someone dies, teenagers look more at the philosophical reasons for death. Every age group experiences and copes with loss in a different way, and the tactics you take in teaching your children should reflect this phenomenon.
- Infants (0-24 months) - Babies are in a state of constant mental development, so their reactions to the loss of a caregiver varies as they grow. Before the age of nine months, babies will have formed very close bonds with their primary caregivers (especially the mother), but will do so on only a precognitive level. If she loses her mother she will recognize that the presence of a close loved one is gone, but she won't understand it. At this age she is able to reform an attachment to a new mother rather quickly. Infants older than 9 months, however, begin to develop their cognitive abilities and can easily recognize and identify their mothers, and the loss will have much more impact on the child's well-being. At this age, the baby will be less likely to give over to a new mother in her life. Before 2 years, however, children generally won't recognize the loss of anyone other than their primary caregivers (and will only be impacted by the loss of the father if he's intimately involved in her life, like any savvy dad is).
- Children (2-6 years) - During this stage, children are rapidly developing. They are learning to master language, becoming better talkers and listeners. The loss of a caregiver affects them much more now, and they'll soon be able to express how that affects them. Until then, however, they learn to grieve on their own. Preschoolers (2- and 3-year-olds) may acutely recognize the loss of a parent, but they don't understand the notion of permanence. Time isn't a concept they've mastered yet, and they may have a hard time understanding that their loved one isn't coming back. Throughout this stage they are also exclusively self-centered, and they will probably think of loss in terms that affect them. They may believe that no mother means no more food, or no more hugging, or no more singing. If you make sure that they understand their needs will still be met, they will probably accept the loss more quickly. Children at this stage, as well, may have the ability to remember the loved one later in life.
- Adolescents (7-12 years) - Children in this age group are now beginning to get a firm grasp of the world, from the concept of time to the idea of death as a permanent end to life. But death is not the only way children experience loss. A divorce or a move can also provoke feelings of sadness and loneliness in children. These emotions can affect the child's behavior, as they try to find a way to deal with them. Younger children may seemingly revert in development and take to wetting the bed, using a pacifier or acting like a baby. Other children may become angry and turn to starting trouble as a way of acting out and getting attention. Others may mimic characteristics of the dead relative, like wearing their clothes or talking like they did. As a parent, your main goal is validate their feelings and help them come to terms with the loss. Encourage them to talk about it, to talk about fun memories they had with the lost loved one; anything you can do to get them talking and working through what hurts them. Help them verbalize their feelings and talk about how the loss is affecting their life.
- Teenagers (13-17 years) - Teenagers are close enough to adulthood that they believe they've got everything figured out. During this period, they're likely to keep their mourning to themselves, believing it to be a burden they have to shoulder. If they've lost a parent, they may reach out to the other parent for comfort. They may also grow attached to the remaining parent, and may try to assume a role as a protector, constantly worrying about your well-being. During this stage kids begin to question the nature of life, as well, and may have philosophical questions about death. "Why do we die?" "What's the point of living if you're just going to die?" "Why did God take Mom?" These are understandable difficult to answer, and ultimately the teen will have to come to terms with these questions himself. Try to provide spiritual leadership, and talk to them every chance you get. Healing at this stage needs to be done as a family.