5 Myths About Kids and Grief

In a time of many sobering statistics, those about children impacted by the COVID pandemic are perhaps the most heartwrenching.

Our societal taboos about grief and death and our well-meaning but sometimes misplaced fears about exposing children to death can make it difficult for kids to find their way through their personal grief journeys.

We talked with Valenca Valenzuela, Volunteer Coordinator for Dougy Center, to understand the myths and facts about children‘s experiences with death and grief. Dougy Center is a Portland-based nonprofit that provides “support in a safe place where children, teens, young adults, and families who are grieving can share their experiences before and after a death.”

Myth 1: Viewing the death of a loved one is always too traumatic for children

Fact: Kids are often more comfortable with death than adults, Valenzuela says. If a parent allows the child to choose to be present, they can know that witnessing a death – one that is expected and happens in a setting that’s peaceful – is not by itself a cause for concern.

Valenzuela again reminds us that this was part of our history for thousands of years. “I think something that is really important for people to understand and know is that all the way up until probably about 150 years ago or so, death and dying happened in the home with the family and children were a huge part of it, they were there through the whole process. As the funeral industry has changed and we’ve taken death and dying out of the hands of the family and put it into the medical profession and the funeral industry, now it is like, ‘Nope, that’s over there, nobody is supposed to really see that.’ This is natural, this is what we did for thousands of years, we’ve just lost our way.”

Myth 2: If a child is not crying, they aren’t grieving

Fact: Valenzuela says, like adults, children grieve in many ways. A child who is not crying is not necessarily not grieving. “Grief looks like all kinds of things. As a society, most people think that grief is synonymous with crying and sadness. But grief can also look like anger. It can also look like apathy. Even some people want to bring humor in because maybe that’s who they are and that’s how they deal with things. We often talk about how grief is contextual. It is based on your gender, your race, the environment you were raised in and you are currently in. That all informs your grief. Nobody grieves the same. A lot of parents think because their child is not crying they are not grieving. It just looks different for kids. They might be dealing with their grief as they are playing with their Barbie dolls. They’re working it through in their own way.”

Myth 3: A child should not attend a funeral

Fact: Again, like witnessing a family member’s death, a child who is allowed to take part in a funeral can benefit from the ritual and find a place for them to express their grief and witness that of others. “If a child was close to someone who died and wants to attend and the parents think it would be beneficial, absolutely, have those children go to the funeral or memorial. Again, more than 150 years ago, the children were involved. The funerals were in the living rooms. They were called the ‘parlor’ and that’s where the term funeral parlor came from. The children were there because they lived in the house. They were part of it. With that said, we have to look at the relationship of the person who died and how close they were. If it is a sibling or a parent, I think it is incredibly important to have the child be a part of that process as much as possible.” Valenzuela says the more you can involve the kids in it the better. Activities like allowing them to draw as part of the ceremony may help them express themselves, she said.

Myth 4: Softer language is better for kids

Fact: Using expressions like “we lost grandma” can make it difficult for kids, especially the younger ones, to understand the permanence of death or even know what actually happened, Valenzuela explained, “With children, it is incredibly important to be concrete. I think adults’ own anxiety around death makes them want to say things like ‘we’ve lost them’ or ‘they’ve passed.’ At Dougy Center, whether you are 3 in our littles’ group or 40, we start our check-ins by saying ‘who died?’ and sharing ‘how they died.’”

Myth 5: We should encourage kids to ‘get over’ grief after 1 year

Fact: There’s no timeline for grief. Grief advocates disagree with the move to list “prolonged grief disorder” in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM), the book clinicians use when diagnosing patients. Like adults, children will never “get over” a loss, but need support in finding productive ways to grieve, experts say. “Because of their development, every time they hit a new developmental stage, they will retrieve from that stage or each life circumstance, like a high school graduation when their parent isn’t there to watch them graduate. We’ve seen kids who come really, really young and then they are there with us for six or seven years and we see how it changes with them in their understanding of the death. All kids, all people, all adults, all humans grieve so differently. We have some people who are coming to groups where their person died 15 years ago. We’re not there to say, ‘No, that’s too long ago.’ If someone is in their grief, they are in their grief and that’s what we recognize,” Valenzuela told Solace.

You can find more information on Dougy Center’s website about child grief and learn about the many resources, groups and programs they provide. They are hosting an upcoming webinar: “What Children & Teens Who are Grieving Want Adults to Know.

Photo: Anne Spratt

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