- Grief is not a linear emotion for children and they may not have the words to describe what they feel.
- Research shows that a parent's own grief response has a deep effect on the child's coping.
- Just as you will need time to process, so will your child. Your witnessing of their grief without trying to fix it embodies compassion.
October 15 is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day and, just ahead of that, I want to devote a post dedicated to interactions with children and their grief (knowing, of course, that this issue matters every day of the year).
Children develop resiliency by facing challenges.
Reaching a developmental milestone involves lots of attempts and a whole lot of fails. Think: sitting up, then walking, then toilet training. If your child has special needs, then within their abilities are other milestones, but the same cycle applies. Few, if any, get it the first time.
Loss and death are challenges, too.
After your miscarriage, though you may not have spoken about it much, you may discover your child preoccupied with a toy they broke or a bug they squished. They may reach toward a dying flower, then look to you for a reaction. How will you respond?
Children have the uncanny ability to capture the purest essence of loss with a word or expression. They are in touch with their emotions so readily, sadness being one of them. They let it show, unfiltered and without apology. And that is good. Deep down, something important is being worked out. A kind of groundwork is being laid for resilience around loss—how to approach it, react to it, talk about it. That something may directly or indirectly have to do with your pregnancy loss.
Children also learn how to deal with grief by watching you, their parent. A study published recently in the journal Omega—“Parental Engagement in Grief Programming Is Related to Children’s Outcomes”—found that parent’s engagement in the grief program “was related to child engagement and the child’s control beliefs which in turn were significantly related to the child’s grief symptoms.”
We know how important and valuable it is that parents be allowed and given and provided (at home, in the workplace, within the community at large, including healthcare settings) space and support to process their loss. Their surviving children benefit as well. As researchers noted, “how a parent copes with grief and loss has an impact on the child, independent of the child’s coping strategies.” A parent’s influence matters.
Your child’s understanding of loss may not compute, in your eyes, in a linear way. What’s important is that your child is processing the loss of something valuable to them. They may pick up on your melancholy. They may be too young to know what really happened, but they are processing.
It might be the loss of a feeling about what the atmosphere in their home feels like. It might be about how a particular feeling makes their body feel (tense, tired, anxious, etc.). Part of dealing with grief is becoming used to what it feels like and finding ways to hold and tolerate these new-found (and until now unknown) feelings.
Processing is the only way to deal with grief. By extension, talking about the bug that died and the flower that wilted helps the child understand the cycle of life at a deeper, more intuitive level. Let yourself be engaged in these conversations. As their parent, you can help them mediate these feelings by reflecting them on your child. This is what healthy mirroring means. Likewise, if your child begins to say negative things about their sadness, you can gently mirror that sadness is natural, okay, and what we feel when something we like or love goes away.
As your child gets older (and this could occur days or years later), they may wonder or ask about that time you were sad when they came back from their first day of kindergarten, or why you drove to the doctor on Christmas Eve when no one was sick. Though they didn’t know the details—that was the day of your last ultrasound or the night you began spotting—their psyche picked up on something out of place.
When this happens, stop and reflect back to your child what you heard. These are good conversations to have when you are coloring or playing. Be curious about their memory and respond according to their age and ability to understand. If they tell you they are sad or mad, use your mirroring skills.
You might start with something like: “Wow, thank you for sharing your feelings. You really helped me understand how you felt. I feel that way, too, sometimes. Do you know it’s natural to feel that way when you lose something?”
These interactions help children build resilience by providing context and support to understand loss and ways to manage the feelings related to losing something they love.
Cipriano, D. J., Barry, C., & Cipriano, S. (2021). Parental Engagement in Grief Programming Is Related to Children's Outcomes. Omega, 302228211008738. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/00302228211008738