mental health blog

Understanding How Children Grieve Can Help Us Cope With Loss As Adults

A tribute to loss and the wisdom of children

Loss is disruptive. Death, especially, impacts lives in the most permanent way. This doesn’t always show up how we expect it to. Sometimes with death comes relief. Sometimes we grieve the loss of something that isn’t human like a pet, a job, a relationship or a life-stage. Sometimes there is anger, sometimes sadness and tears, but not always, and not always right away.

We're often told what grief "should" look like:
You should be sad.
Your sadness should show up as tears.
You should grieve alone.
You should expect and accept and support for a few weeks.
Then, you should “get on with your life” as quickly as possible.
You should only grieve when there’s a death.


If you do a Google-image search for “grief” you’ll find a lot of low saturation images of people, alone, in the dark, staring off into the distance. Grief is too often held as a solitary experience, one to be traversed behind closed doors, impacting as few people as possible. You don’t find many pictures of people laughing, seeking community, acting angry, or making unsafe decisions but these are all things that can happen in the wake of loss. Even if our personal culture holds grief in a more inviting way, we have often internalized the white-washed messages that grief should be solitary, mysterious, quick, quiet, and sad. This can create a truncated grieving process that is not allowed to unfold as naturally and fully as it may need to.

What about children is different?
Children, especially young children, have not yet internalized these messages from the world around them. Therefore their grief process often looks different. Sometimes, parents will worry, “is my child grieving?”. In many ways, children are experts at grieving when given the space and permission to do it in their own way. We can learn a lot from them about how grief manifests in the human experience when it is allowed to unfold without limitations.    

How do children grieve?

Children grieve intermittently: Loss is a huge thing to process, and children have a natural ability to titrate their experience, to make contact with their grief little by little in order to not become overwhelmed. Essentially they don’t process it all at once.

They grieve through play: Children are naturally in touch with symbolism. They often process their grief through creative means, playing out scenarios or burying things and digging them up. To many adults, this looks too lighthearted to be grief. But for children, play is work.

They experience grief in their bodies: Kids feel their feelings even when they don’t have words for them. The pain may manifest physically without a mental awareness of grief. They may experience, stomach aches, rashes, fatigue, muscle tension, insomnia etc. While it's always good to check with a physician, these symptoms may be grief related.  

They may act out: When experiences, such as loss, become overwhelming, they tend to go in, out, or both. When these emotions go outward, there may be outbursts of laughter, yelling, hitting, punching, biting, testing boundaries, breaking rules, etc. This is a time when gentle, non-shaming, limit setting can be especially important and comforting on a deep level.

They may act in: When the overwhelming emotions move inward, this can show up as isolation, withdraw, self-harm, freezing, not talking, not eating etc. While it is important to stay safe, this behavior can be understood as a normal reaction to loss. 

 

What does this have to do with me? I’m not a child.
In ways, you are. Look at a photo of yourself as a child. Do you recognize that person? That person is not gone. That child is still present inside of you. There may be many layers of life experience in between that child and the outside world, but you are still that person on many levels. That child inside you still has needs. 

How does this Show up in adults?

We can learn a lot about grieving freely from children. If we let go of our preconceptions of grief, we allow it to move through us in it’s own way. The beauty is, as adults, when we have a cognitive understanding of what is happening, we can try to guard against self-judgment. Here’s how these processes we see in children may show up in adults. Here's how we can attend to our inner child throughout the grief process. 

Grieving intermittently: You will not be able to force yourself to move through all the grief the time before you go back to work. It's okay if you feel nothing one week only to be fully in it the next. Ride the waves as they rise and fall and don’t try to change the ocean because you will end up frustrated. Remember the wisdom of children who naturally titrate and let yourself trust your own pace.

Grieving through play: Oftentimes, adults will feel guilty when they find themselves having fun too soon after a loss. Allow yourself to play as part of your process. Perhaps it is a concert, a creative outlet, or a social event. Perhaps it is a day at the beach, or a belly laugh with a friend. The options are endless. Just because you are not in direct contact with sadness does not mean you aren’t working through grief. Every day that you get up with loss is a day you are working through it.

Experiencing grief in your body: Adults often have a need to make sense of their felt experience. We feel our feelings whether we can name them or not and this can be frustrating and confusing. Your body might do things you don’t understand. Certainly see a doctor if you’re worried. Insomnia, waking up at odd hours, rashes, digestive issues, chronic coughs, or muscle tension are just some of the many ways grief may move through the physical body.  

 

Death is the kind of trauma that impacts our attachment.

 

 

 

You may notice being in relationship is hard after a loss or a death. This is normal. It is scary to allow yourself to be connected with others when a deep attachment has been severed. If you are grieving the loss of a situation or life stage it may be scary to feel excited about whatever comes next.

Acting out: If you notice (or your friends and family notice) you’re acting differently, this is normal. Engaging in risky behavior, getting more angry, testing relational boundaries, or seeking more sexual contact than usual, are some of the ways that grief can manifest outwardly. While it is important to stay safe, it is also important to have compassion through these times and not be too hard on yourself when you notice that you’re pushing boundaries.

Acting in: When grief moves inwards it can show up as withdraw, apathy, self harm, substance use, numbness, disinterest in sexual connection, fatigue, or self criticism, just to name a few. Acting in can feel isolating and hopeless. It’s important to let yourself spend time alone if that’s what you need. It’s also important to remember support might feel nice even when reaching out feels impossible.

We can take care of our inner child by allowing the fullest range of expression possible.

When we give permission rather than trying to control, or even understand, we get out of our own way.  By not telling ourselves how we “should” grieve, we encourage the natural healing process. It can come along with a lot of feelings of uncertainty and fear, but coming back to the trust we once had as children can help the process unfold. Grief is already painful; we don’t need to add more pain by attempting to control it. Watch it, notice it, feel it, give it permission, and meet it with compassion especially when it feels confusing. 

If you are dealing with an ending, a loss, or a death, and would like support navigating the process please reach out.