Here is a copy of the developmental understanding of children’s grief that Liz and I talked about on yesterday’s Blog Talk Radio Show on Supporting Grieving Children.
How Children Grieve at Different Developmental ages
If you ever get the opportunity, look at the artwork of a grieving child and these theories of developmental differences become crystal clear.
You’ll see a younger child draw pictures of a tombstone or a casket and a funeral procession. They may have an old-fashioned casket and have RIP on it. They may have never seen one in person, but they have in the cartoons.
Younger children will also think of death like a cartoon might depict it (or a soap opera… ) life isn’t final. The coyote comes back and again and again (just like Marlana on Days of Our Lives). So when you hear a child say that grandma died but she’s going to bring him an Xbox for Christmas, it isn’t that unusual.
A child in middle school starts to see death as something personified… Look at Voldemort (of he whose name shall not be mentioned). Kids at this age will draw pictures of the Boogey man or the Grim Reaper… even look at the images in the allegory in the Harry Potter Books — is it the last one, where they talk about the brothers with the cape who try to out smart Death.
Death looks like the Boogey Man or the Grim Reaper. (Forgive me, I haven’t read the book again for a while and well, I’m old… I don’t remember things like this well so if I am wrong, I am sure you know what part of the story I am talking about).
And kids grow continue to grow. They might be really in to music or poetry. They might be in to art. At this age, kids can think symbolically (high school and older) and depictions of death become metaphors. . . the cloudy skies, the angels, rays of light from the heavens, a tree of life, etc. They have more language and more ability to deal in abstractions.
Why is this important? Because we need to meet kids and teens where they are at. We can’t assume that one idea, one way of speaking will suffice within one family.
I think about my own family. My landlady, who we called Grandma, died when I was in first grade maybe. I loved her. She lived upstairs. I got to play with her jewelry and sit on the porch up there and watch out over the whole street. I missed her terribly.
For my brother, who was eight years older, she was everything. She was like a magical wise woman who loved him unconditionally and was there for him all the time. He, despite being in high school, helped take care of her and was truly lost when she died.
Eight years can do a lot of things and a wise person will understand that while they are supporting grieving kids.
Another thing to keep in mind is that if a loss occurs at a young age, say 6, a child’s understanding of that loss will mature as they do. They will revisit the loss time and time again but always from a different vantage point.
So, at 16, when I lost my grandfather, I lost one set of roles, one set of ideas. When I turned 18 and was graduating I lost new things and grieved because I know how proud he would have been of me.
When my brother died 17 years ago, I grieved. My family started to dissolve with the loss of my grandfather and now Mike was gone too. Would my grandfather have been able to stand by us and love him while Mike was dying. That brought up great pain for me because there were some in the family that could not.
As I get closer to my dissertation, (well into my adult years), I have to say, I wish it was my grandfather that was still around, there to see me get my PhD. And yet I know without my experience of loss for him, I would not be here today wanting to make a difference in the lives of others who are grieving.
So, it’s important to remember that grief isn’t processed as a straight line — no once through and wheeeewww, you are done. It is more like the T.S. Eliot poem that talks about coming to the same place again and again but each time, from a different point of view.
I hope that this list helps you, whether you’re a grieving parent, a teacher, a counselor, a teen.
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