Grief, mourning and bereavement are fancy words to describe the phases of adjustment that we go through during a loss. A loss for a child/teen can be from a death, health, divorce, change in school, moving, break ups, being bullied, theft of personal property, intrusion or violation.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described five stages that a person goes through during grief. They are:
1. Shock and denial where the reaction is “Noooo, this can’t be happening.”
2. Anger which is directed to anyone they can blame.
3. Bargaining with God, authority figures or someone whom they perceive to have power.
4. Depression where the grief work seems to be the focus.
5. Acceptance and moving on with life.
It is not a step-by-step process but more of a continuous wave of different phases crashing like waves over you. Some waves are small while others come in sets and pummel you to your knees and tossing you onto land again.
Children grieve as well but it is manifested in behavioral and somatic ways. Grief reactions include:
~ Feelings of helplessness, “I can’t.”
~ Somatic complaints; choking, lump in throat or tightness in chest, stomach aches, shallow breathing, sighing, nausea, feeling tired, or having diarrhea.
~ Lashing out or temper tantrums, whining, hitting, or oppositional behavior.
~ Expressing guilt, insist the loved one will come back, report hearing the loved ones’ voice.
~ Depression or mood changes, restlessness, decrease in concentration, crying, no energy, sleeping disturbances/nightmares and bed wetting.
Teens may have many symptoms listed above but know that death is permanent. They will experience feelings more intensely because their body is undergoing hormonal changes during this time. In addition they may feel guilt, burdened, pressure to step up and be an adult, feel the need to care for the remaining adult, isolate, withdraw socially, act out, begin to drink or do drugs to avoid the pain and get frustrated easily.
When talking to your children/teen use the correct terminology. If someone has died use the term death/died. Do not use left, passed, sleeping, with Jesus, lost or took a journey. Using these words may cause fears or unrealistic anger. For instance, if you use the words “they are sleeping” the child will have fears of going to sleep. If you say “they went to live with Jesus” the child gets the idea that Jesus is mean or the person did not like living with them anymore.
Spend extra time with your child/teen. Let them see you cry sometimes so it gives permission for them to express their emotion. Accept their emotions as the feelings come.
Stay on a schedule for sleeping, eating healthy and caring for their body. Increase fluid intake and some dietitians recommend a daily banana to help with potassium loss. Keep life simple by taking time to laugh, walk, play or go somewhere for a shared experience. Hold off on making major life changes for at least a year.
Recognize that there will be setbacks on the anniversary of that death, birthdays, holidays, when friends talk about their family, important events like prom, graduation, and all the “firsts.” Be aware of the words that you use. Saying, “I could have died laughing or from embarrassment” can freak a child out.
Grief work is different for everyone. The working through of grief may last as long as two years with setbacks occurring periodically. Have patience with yourself and with your child. Know that with your help, they are doing the best that they can. And if you feel overwhelmed there are professionals and groups to help you get through this time.