This Children's Grief Awareness week (15th Nov 18) Dr Chloe, an expert on Grief, author of the Overcoming Grief app (available on app store) and a Chartered Psychologist with many years experience in Grief, Complicated Grief and Traumatic Grief, shares her thoughts and experience with us.
I work everyday with families who cope with the difficulties of Grief and am passionate about keeping the conversations going on Grief. Although I wouldn't say that experiencing Grief is a Mental Health Condition, it is absolutely true to say that when Grief is not processed safely and fully it leads to Mental Health complications such as Major Depression, Anxiety, Panic, Complex Bereavement Disorder and in some cases Traumatic Grief, Delayed Grief or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Although I wouldn't say that experiencing Grief is a Mental Health Condition, it is absolutely true to say that when Grief is not processed safely and fully it leads to Mental Health complications such as Major Depression, Anxiety, Panic, Complex Bereavement Disorder and in some cases Traumatic Grief, Delayed Grief or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
About 24,000 parents die each year in the UK every year. That means that 1 in 29 children are coping with Grief and raising awareness around Grief is of paramount importance. I recently did a podcast on Grief with Professor Green and Hussain Manawer (of Hussain's House) and the outpouring of Grief that this has produced has really brought to my attention that as a nation we are struggling to know how to handle Grief. Often, when families are bereaved they don't really know where to go (is it the GP? Is it the school counsellor? Is it the local priest?), what to expect and what coping strategies to rely on to ensure safe journeying through Grief.
So, in this piece, I will offer some advice and hopefully give people in Grief some hope and reassurance. I will be running a social media campaign to raise awareness on Children's Grief, in support of the National Campaign so follow the tag #drchloesgriefadvice on Instagram and Twitter.
MY YOUNG CHILD IS BEREAVED - What is normal?
When a very young child is bereaved, they dip in and out of grief. Seemingly ok. This doesn't mean they are not in grief. They are. But depending on their age - they can seem calm, taking it in their stride. As though this is almost a normal thing. This is their normal and handling their grief is a delicate matter.
What language you use, what you say has happened to their parent, what behaviours and feelings you model for them and how much opportunity they get to process their feelings safely is a big deal. I can't say too much here because the matter is rather big but what's important to take away is a sense check that you are doing a Good Enough job of it! Sadly you can't protect them from their grief but you can help them normalise what they are thinking and feeling.
With very young children it is important to keep routines going, to keep quality fun times going whilst also recognising and holding in your mind that coping with the loss of a parent is very distressing for anyone and your young children need to feel that they are safe. They may be more pre-occupied with their daily care as they can be very worried that you too may die and this is terrifying. They may also not understand what you mean by buried, death, heaven. Questions like this are completely normal and show that they are trying to make sense of it. Make sure you tell them the truth in an age appropriate fashion and in line with your spiritual practices at home and prompt them to recognise their feelings.
You could say - I feel very sad this has happened to you. I am here to look after you. If they are not very chatty, ask them to draw you pictures and talk about them. Give them an object of their deceased parent and get them to talk to mummy, or daddy every night. Send love, kisses, let them find their way of staying connected to their lost parent in their hearts. Do not over-react to their naughty behaviour. Some children regress and may start behaving differently. For example they may stop feeding themselves, or sleeping alone in their rooms, or being toilet trained. All completely normal when in grief and they just need time to continue with their development. Do not be overly worried about this. It will pass.
If they are pushing you on the boundaries, try and stay calm and get lots and lots of support to ensure you are Ok and you are processing your grief well. Do not make dramatic displays of terror or emotional pain - this will be too frightening for a little child and may lead them to want to protect you from more sadness and pain.
Make sure you give them plenty of opportunity to visit their parent's resting place, put pictures up of their deceased parent and involve them in lots of activities that are normal. Get on with life - show them they are safe and life goes on - whilst also making time to be sad, to remember mummy and daddy and to honour them as a family.
Most important, do not bottle up your own grief. Get support.
MY TEENAGER IS WITHDRAWING AND NOT TALKING TO ME AT ALL ABOUT HER GRIEF - WHAT SHOULD I DO?
When loss of a parent happens in adolescence it is really important to find a balance in how you respond to their behaviours. On the one hand you don't want to insist that they speak and share their grief to you. On the other you don't want them to bottle it up, turn inwards and avoid processing their Grief. If they say they don't want to think about it, go with it for a while but give them plenty of opportunity to remember their deceased parent.
Talk about them, visit their resting place, get them to write down messages for mum and dad, show them that you are ok to receive their sadness. Do not judge. Do not fix. Do not criticise. Listen... Listen....Listen.... Often teenagers feel embarrassed by their feelings, feel ashamed of what they feel, and do not want to burden you with their own Grief.
If they don't want to talk with you about it, because the death is too traumatic and they don't feel safe discussing it or remembering it, offer them professional counselling. You can find support at Cruse Bereavement, or at The Counselling Directory.
You can also download the Grief app I have authored to help yourself through it - this is available on the Apple Store and it is called Overcoming Grief.
GRIEF IS A FAMILY AFFAIR - RIGHT?
Grief is beyond doubt a family affair and what really helps families find a way forward in life, is sharing in their Grief. So talking about what happened, what they make of it and honouring the legacy of their loved one is a big deal. This applies to everyone - including children.
When we are coping with Grief although it is painful to remember our deceased loved one, it is also absolutely important to bring them into our hearts and stay connected with them. Many different ways of doing this are possible. Here are some ideas
- Speak to your deceased loved one. Write them messages. Draw them pictures. Get the children to do this too. It helps.
- Visit their resting place and spend time as a family. Take flowers. Letters. Plants.
- Have a special lunch, dinner, walk, whatever you fancy, with the key people who knew your loved one and celebrate their life.
- Speak about what you have learned from your loved one and the way they lived their life.
- Show your child (children) that their values live on, that their life still matters and they are not forgotten.
- Make a scrap book of memories. Get your children to write down everything they want to remember of their deceased parent. This will matter increasingly.
- Make time for private grief and accept that Grief comes in waves and that bad days are part of the norm.
IT IS OK TO NOT BE OK.
What you need is self-compassion. Care and good enough support.
Don't force your children to do anything if they don't want to. If they need time off school - that's ok. If they want to be alone - that's ok. If they don't seem themselves - that's normal too. But you don't want any of this to become extreme. So your job is to check in with them regularly.
WHAT WARNING SIGNS SHOULD I LOOK OUT FOR?
Be on the look out for the following signs:
- Becoming increasingly withdrawn and quiet - refusing to hang out with friends.
- Refusal to participate in Grief rituals.
- Extreme behaviour changes and sudden mood swings, that seem out of character.
- Sudden break ups, unexpected friendship breakdowns.
- Hiding body parts suddenly (e.g. arms, legs, tummy) - this could be hiding self harming.
- Extreme reduced eating.
- Extreme sleep changes: either sleeping through the days, or not sleeping at all.
I hope that this is helpful. If you'd like to listen to my podcast on Grief you can find it on iTunes, spotify, in the news section of dr-chloe.com and here
Thank you for reading.
Dr Chloe Paidoussis Mitchell is a leading grief and trauma psychologist working in the UK. Most recently she was appointed as the clinical lead for the Overcoming Grief app and has developed strong expertise in delivering digital mental health apps. Chloe is very happy to answer any questions. If you want to get in touch, don’t hesitate.