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Understanding Childhood Grief by Matthew Percy, Psy.D.

    Loss affects all people - children and adults - in profound and unique ways. One interesting and often challenging feature of grief is that it is a personal, subjective experience – no two people’s experiences of grief, even over the same loss, are the same. It is, therefore, important that parents and caregivers work to understand their children’s possible grieving. Then can a child receive the support they might not know how to ask for, and feel understood when they are in an emotional state that can feel foreign, confusing and uncomfortable.

     In anticipation of or following a loss, the following guidelines can help facilitate a child’s grieving in a way that promotes healthy development. Symptoms can vary in children, from sadness to anger and irritability, loss of appetite, and difficulty sleeping. Understand that no loss is too great or too small to grieve. The experience of loss is relative to the person, so the death of a pet can be as painful as the death of a loved family member. What causes grief can be different for every child.

     Answer all questions and tell the truth. When a child is curious, give him or her answers in ways that are clear and easy to understand. The less a child has to wonder, the less he or she is likely to rely on fantasy or imagination, which often can cause anxiety. Difficult feelings are actually opportunities. While it can be difficult to see a child feeling sad or in pain, resist the urge to “make it better.” Instead, join in the sharing of their hard feelings, helping to name the feelings when that is possible.

Remember, the goal is not to “get over” a loss, but rather to learn how to live with the reality of it in healthy ways. There is no timeline. Understand that grief is a personal process that requires working through very difficult feelings. Rushing this process can get in the way, unintentionally drawing the grief out longer than it needs to be.

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