‘Keeping a child from dealing with grief may bring harm to the child’

BY Bill Reagan

I never attended a funeral as a child. None of my close relatives died when I was young. My grandparents did not die until I was an adult. My parents died when I reached middle age. None of my relatives has been taken by early or sudden death, or by grievous illness. Thank God.

I remember my parents going to a few funerals, but they never would have considered taking the children. It was assumed that we would not understand. We were to be protected from death. Children would bounce back from death on their own.

My parents’ attitudes toward death were common for that time. Such attitudes are, of course, wrong.

Grief is our most difficult human experience. Everybody dies. Keeping a child from dealing with grief may bring harm to the child. The child may get stuck in grief for the rest of their life, causing a lifetime of feelings of guilt, anger and vulnerability. There are important life skills to learn about death, the importance of routine and ritual, how to behave at memorials and funerals, and how to work through the normal emotions of anger, denial, bargaining and acceptance everyone must deal with in the face of death.

Children of different ages process grief in different ways. Even toddlers can sense that something is wrong. They know when their caregivers are upset. Preschoolers see death as temporary and reversible. They may need repeated explanations of what has happened. Children six to eight years old may think death is a person or a ghost. They may try to reverse their circumstances by trying to be good. When they get a little older they understand that death is irreversible and wonder “Am I next?” Teens may experience survivor guilt.

The type of death a child experiences may affect the grieving process. Did the loved one die after a long illness? Was the death sudden? Violent? A suicide?

The Children’s Bereavement Center, Rio Grande Valley has recently opened in Harlingen. Services are offered to grieving children and their families regardless of their ability to pay. Don’t let your child get stuck in grief. Call 956-368-4065 or visit cbc-rgv.org for help.

Bill Reagan is executive director of Loaves & Fishes of the Rio Grande Valley.