Helping Kids Grieve

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“It seems to me that Peter’s trying to grow up too fast. I imagine he thinks that grownups don’t hurt as deeply as children do when they lose someone.”
– J.M. Barrie in ‘Finding Neverland’

Kids live in a confusing world, a world constructed by nature and by adults, two entities they can’t possibly understand. They rely on adults for just about everything, for their safety and survival, for guidance and support, for explanations. From the evolutionary point of view they’re actually programmed to do so. If you’ve ever wondered why it’s so easy to brainwash kids, why for good or ill the mantra is always ‘get them while they’re young’ this is why. Natural selection favored that sort of mindless obedience, the total faith in caretakers and other authority figures, the instant suggestibility. Adults did have a lot more information about how the world works and this information, when heeded, served to protect them from all of the various dangers of the natural world, helping them survive to pass on their DNA with that gene for suggestibility.

But when the experience of grief comes along adult guidance is usually painfully lacking. I’ve been thinking about J.M. Barrie’s quote since I watched ‘Finding Neverland’ the other day. To kids, adults are like gods, they seem to have all the answers. But we’re not gods, we’re just people, and our humanity comes into clear relief when loss enters the picture, when we’re forced to confront the deeper layers of our existence that don’t have clear cut answers.

The fact that grief emotions are so painful and confusing is exactly why, like Peter, kids often wish they could be grownups. And so paradoxically the best intervention is to be frank and honest with them that adults don’t have access to any information to make the process easier or more understandable, that when it comes to grief everybody hurts the same and nobody has any simple answers.

Kids might have the disadvantage when it comes to accumulated knowledge about the world but they enjoy a clear advantage when it comes to approaching their emotions as they are, without years of built up rationalizations to obscure their true thoughts and feelings.

Actually this is a chance for them to show great courage in just letting themselves feel the emotions that are there without trying to explain them, judge them, rationalize them, categorize them, etc. By just feeling what they’re feeling without censure they’re doing the right thing, something most adults have become completely incapable of doing. Those painful and confusing emotions are the correct emotions to be feeling and if they let themselves feel them they will be setting themselves on a trajectory to have healthy emotional lives as adults.