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Phyllis R. Silverman Ph.D.


Children Need to Learn to Define Grief

Helping children learn about grief.

I was recently rereading some of what Irwin Sandler and his colleagues at the Prevention Research Center at Arizona State University have written about helping grieving children. They suggested that children whose parent has died have to learn what it means to grieve, in other words to define this word. I had never considered, in quite this way, that children need to learn to give a name to the feelings they are experiencing as they deal with the loss of a parent, a friend, or someone else close to them. We know that young children do not grasp the meaning of what it means to die. They expect that the deceased will return. My grandaughter's first encounter, at the age of 2, was when her dog died. She learned that her dog would not be back the next day. This is something they have to learn from other mourners around them. As they get older they may understand that there is no returning from the grave as they also learn what a grave is. But in fact most children have little or no idea what we mean when we use the words " mourning" and "grief".

What does it mean to mourn? What do we feel when we mourn? We feel an emptiness, a longing to touch the person who is gone. We loose a sense of safety in the world. Children have similar feelings. They have lost a sense of certainty that this person will be there to care for them and to share their life with them. We can look at our own losses and frame what we feel as part of mourning, of being bereft. Can children put together all that they are experiencing? Does learning that there is a name for it help? I have written about the unusual feelings that children experience after a death and that they don't know what to do with. They also have to learn to deal with the changes that his death brings to their life. I knew that children needed to learn not to be afraid of these feelings, and the changes in their lives that come with them. In reading about Sandler's work, I now saw that we also have to help children find a name for all of this.We may use these words with them but do they actually know what the words mean?

Children need to learn that it is normal to feel sad, to be angry at times, to be confused about what has happened to their parent, to sometimes not be able to sleep. They need to know that the intensity of these feelings are not permanent and that their feelings will come and go. They need to learn that not everyone has the same feelings but that there are many similarities in how people express their grief. They may have many questions about how their life has changed. They need to learn that sharing these feelings and asking questions can be helpfull. Another way of putting it is that parents have to not only deal with their grief but they have to become teachers as well.
One of the difficulties for a parent is that they are learning as well. They need to translate the experience of mourning into age appropriate language their children can understand in order to beome the teachers their children need.


About the Author

Phyllis R. Silverman, Ph.D., is a Scholar-in-Residence at Brandeis University Women's Studies Research Center.