Everyone will experience grief at some time in their life. It’s important to recognize that children grieve, as well. grief in children is often overlooked and misunderstood. Today we will look at grief in children and how we can help them to heal after a loss.
“You may associate grief with the death of a loved one, but any loss can cause grief, including the loss of a relationship, your health, your job, or a cherished dream.” (Help Pages.org Grief and Loss)
Most people think that grief is something that they’ll deal with when someone they love dies. In truth, the process of grieving begins at the moment you realize you of a loved one has cancer. This is a huge shift in your life when the story you pictured for yourself changes. The outcome may not look anything like you’d hoped or imagined.
“Life will never be the same. You can never go back to that day before the clinic visit when you learned you had cancer.” -Melissa Turgeon, child life specialist
When a family learns that a parent has cancer, everyone’s routine changes. Some people are surprised when they see grief in children. Yet, there are some very practical losses your child will experience or anticipate, such as:
- A very active and involved parent can suddenly become ill and need to sit on the sidelines.
- A caregiving parent may suddenly devote all of their time to the patient-parent, leaving the kids with a sense of loss.
- When our daughter was 18, she developed a keen awareness that it was unlikely her dad would ever walk her down the aisle or hold her babies.
Did that last one surprise you?
Brain development continues until children reach the age of 26. Unfortunately, grief in children ages 18-26 is often unrecognized. Grief in children looks different depending on the age and stage, as well as the personality of the child. Often, the grief manifests itself in physical symptoms like stomachaches and headaches. In fact, these signs may even be more prevalent than tears or anger.
It’s important to acknowledge the deep and profound loss each member of the family is experiencing. How this looks will be different for each person. It’s easy to misinterpret the symptoms of childhood grief. While grief is as individual and unique at the person who experiences it, there are some common reactions and behaviors that are often seen in grieving youth.
- Physical complaints like headaches or stomachaches
- Emotional outbursts
- Lack of emotions (even about the death)
- Separation anxiety
- Feeling protective of parent and/or family members
- Worrying about the safety of loved ones
- Feeling responsible for the death (thinks that in some way he or she caused the death)
- A change in behavior at school
- Falling grades, hard time concentrating or paying attention, seems to “daydream” more
- Changes in sleep habits
- Changes in appetite
- Regressing (acting younger than they are)
- Acting overly responsible for their age
- Social withdrawal
- Loss of interest in friends and usual activities, even pushing away old friends
- Worrying about another death occurring even their own death
A Different Schedule
Research has shown that grief in children and teens also happens on a different schedule than in adults. Because they don’t have the same cognitive capacity as adults, they can’t maintain a deep level of grief to the extent that adults do. Instead, children will show their grief off-and-on, in waves, over a period of many years. As a child grows older, grief will bubble up at different periods in life. When they reach new developmental stages or important milestones such as first dates, graduations, proms, and birthdays, the grief will rise again.
Seeking out youth grief services early on in a parent’s cancer journey can be very helpful. At this time, the support system that you’ve assembled, including professionals, family, and friends will be essential to ensuring your entire family is able to process their grief and continue to live despite the pain each person is feeling.
A Note about Stigma
The stigma of mental illness is a dangerous one that merits mentioning here. Children and teens who are experiencing grief-related depression or behavioral changes are often marginalized, despite the fact that what they need most to get through this rough patch is support. The stigma causes an unhealthy cycle in our society. People say they want to eliminate the stigma, but as soon as someone is brave enough to talk about what they are going through, those they thought would be there for them turn their backs on them. With children, I suggest using caution in choosing who to confide in.
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In 2012 doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan, with stage IV lung cancer. Since then, our family has been learning what it means to face cancer. I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.
My books Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, and Facing Cancer as a Parent: Helping Your Children Cope with Your Cancer, are available on Amazon.com
I also blog at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker