By Ariell Ussery, Covenant Care Children’s Support Services
Hospice care is very unique in that we take a holistic care approach. We not only value our patients and their needs, but we value extending our support to their family members as well. Because of this passion to support the whole family, we have taken high interest in providing specialized support to grieving children.
Children are able to experience feelings similar to adults, but their thought processes are quite different. Their understanding of death depends upon their developmental level. As a child matures, he or she may need to mourn in a new way, based on these normal developmental changes.
It’s important to understand that grief is the sorrow or feelings felt when a loss happens, but mourning is the outward expression of that grief. Mourning is the necessary work that is a vital component for any bereaved person, and each individual will have different feelings and their own unique style of mourning.
Grief is not a mental illness and should not be treated as one. Bereaved children can undergo major emotional, spiritual, physical and behavioral changes, and we can learn to understand these changes as symptoms of underlying grief needs. Children typically handle their grief in doses or “grief bursts.” It can be difficult for children to experience intense emotions for long periods of time.
If a child is surrounded by nurturing adults who are able to provide a safe, comforting environment, children can find healing and even grow from the experience. This is why Covenant provides attention and resources to families with young children – so that we can equip those individuals with the skills to be able to confidently provide this support to the children in their family.
So you may ask, what can you do for the child who is currently grieving? It is best to be flexible with children and let them teach you about their grief. Do not expect a child to be at a certain place in their grief at a specific time. Remember that grief is unique to the individual. Be available at any time he or she decides to share thoughts or feelings and never dismiss a certain feeling expressed. It is best to be honest, genuine and answer questions with age-appropriate responses.
It’s ok if you do not have an answer to the tough questions, but recognizing this and being honest will show that their questions are still ok. Being available now will lay the foundation for later needs when grief feelings resurface.
In summary, providing grief support to children begins with relationship. Spending time with them, nurturing, listening and validating their feelings is key to their growth through the difficult time after loss. Talking with a professional may help in some cases, and others may need another outlet such as art, writing or a support group. Gently help the child identify what their mourning needs are, and allow them room to explore those outlets for themselves.
To learn more about Covenant Care’s child bereavement services, please visit choosecovenant.org/services/kids/.