Commentary

Why do we need to be aware that children grieve?

Is a child’s grief really an issue that warrants awareness? Aren’t children resilient, and won’t they simply “bounce back” after a family member’s death? Isn’t it best to focus a child’s attention away from these sad realities? Shouldn’t we let children enjoy their childhood free from the burden of death and grief?

The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) has been providing bereavement care to children, teenagers, and adults for the past 26 years. These sincere questions are among those which TAPS has helped parents and caregivers navigate throughout these years. This deepens the understanding of the impact a death has on a child’s life and positions the family for a stronger foundation as the adults in the family gain that valuable perspective and gain tools to help their children.

Further, misinformation about childhood grief has left many kids to endure and navigate their grief alone without the support and encouragement they need most from the adults in their lives. So, what is the truth about childhood grief?

Are children resilient and do they simply bounce back? Yes and no. Children can be resilient, but they are also vulnerable (e.g. research by CDC & Kaiser – ACEs study). Children’s minds are not fully developed, and they are being shaped by all that they see, hear, and experience. They carry stress with limited capacity for managing acute anxiety that often accompanies grief. They suffer deep emotional pain after someone dies, particularly when the relationship was substantive and impactful.

Children are not resilient in a vacuum. The support children receive from the adults in their lives directly impacts their mental, emotional, social, and physical health now and as they grow into adulthood. According to the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, children who have stable, loving relationships with their parent, caregiver, or other adults are more likely to be resilient, allowing them to navigate their grief in a healthier way.

Is it best to focus children’s attention away from sad realities like death and grief so they can enjoy their childhood? If our goal is to change the subject or avoid having difficult conversations with our children, then redirecting their attention is certainly an effective way to do that. But it does not change the sad reality nor the emotional struggle that children experience when they are grieving. It only leaves children to grieve on their own apart from the support they need most.

Children fare better when the adults in their lives acknowledge their grief. They cope better when they can mourn along with their family and remember their person who died. Parental attention and family connectedness are both protective factors that buffer against toxic stress that can negatively impact a child’s development.

While children need adult affirmation when they are grieving, they also need to be able to be a kid. They need the opportunity to have fun and focus on living, dreaming about life and all the wonderful possibilities ahead of them. Having a balanced childhood is important. Learning how to manage hardship and difficulties are a part of growing up for most, and an important part of their development into adulthood. But so is celebrating the joys of life, successful moments, and having fun.

At TAPS, children are matched with Military Mentors (active duty military and veterans) to provide a positive connection with a caring adult. They express their grief through art, play, and interactions with their peers at camps and in care groups. Also, they have fun, learn important life skills, and celebrate life together as they grow in healthy ways.

So, why do we need to be aware that children grieve? So that we, the adults in their lives, are equipped with the knowledge to be a supportive, caring presence in their lives. With the right awareness, parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, and adults who are present in the places where children play, learn, live, and grow can know the truth about how kids are impacted by grief and how they are best supported. Join TAPS as we recognize Children’s Grief Awareness Day by giving special attention to the children in your life this month and always. #ChildrenGrief. #ChildGriefDay.

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