Loss is an inevitable part of life and grief is a natural part of the healing process. Grieving allows us to work through the myriad feelings engendered by significant losses. The resources and links in this section have been selected to help you make the necessary steps toward healing.
Link to Books on Grief & Bereavement
Please click here for a link to books on bereavement and grief.
Infants Through Adolescents - How Children Cope With Grief
The cognitive and emotional levels of development from infant through adolescent cover a wide span of grief. The age of a child/adolescent and a child's/adolescent's perception of death must be understood before the caregiver or facilitator starts interacting with the child.
A grieving child at each different level of development will need assistance in building coping skills and finding a sense of closure to his/her loss. Children at all developmental stages experience grief on different chronological and emotional levels.
Infants and Toddlers
Children younger than four can sense that something is wrong as they experience the grief of their primary caretaker. The absence of the mother may cause a clear biological reaction. Anger, crying, searching, lack of appetite, and finally quiet resignation are the ways in which a child will grieve for the loss of the mother/primary caretaker.
The child should not be passed from caretaker to caretaker.
What one does is far more important to the child this young than what one says. Generally, a grieving infant or toddler needs large doses of tender, loving care--holding, cuddling, and stroking.
Four- to Six-Year Olds
Bereaved children between four and six have a limited and literal understanding of death. For a child in this age range, death may be explained in physical terms. Because thinking is very literal and bodily oriented, death may be best explained as follows:
His/her heart stopped beating and no one can make it start again. Therefore, we won't be seeing him/her move or talk anymore. We will bury the body in the ground, because (identify the person, using their name) is not able to do or say anything anymore.
Children will often note the discrepancy between burial of the body and the description of "going away" or "going to Heaven." While the young child probably can't grasp the concept, one might address the distinction as the part that we love--the part that smiled and laughed and loves us-is the part that has gone to heaven. The old, broken body is now what is in the ground.
Caretakers can facilitate therapeutic role-play by sitting with the child as he or she plays with dolls, stuffed animals, puppets, toy cars, and doll houses. Look for aggression in play and explore where the anger is focused.
Seven- to Eleven-Year Olds
Children ages seven to eleven are still primarily oriented to the family, and although they've begun to relate to and gain self-identity through their peers, play is still a mode of self-expression. Children this age also express themselves quite well orally, especially the primary feelings of mad, glad, and sad.
They have begun to grasp more abstract concepts such as truth, time, space, and death, although magical thinking still plays a role. Most commonly, seven-or eight-year-olds become fearful of death because they realize for the first time it's real.
No matter who dies, they may feel devastated at the thought of losing a parent. Obviously, the death of a parent is extremely traumatic at this age. Some of their questions may indicate fears of their own death. Death is seen as an attacker who takes life.
Free expression of grief must be encouraged, and children must be told over and over that they didn't cause the death and that the dead person did not choose to die. A child of this age may also fear that death is a punishment for improper behavior. They may fear that their naughty behavior has brought about the death of a loved one, and they are being punished for it. They may also believe that they or another loved one will be the next to die.
A more adult concept of life and death develops roughly between the ages of nine and eleven. At this developmental level, the children have learned that only people, plants, and animals live and die. Children of this age are not only sensitive to their own feelings, but can now enter into the feelings of others.
As a result, they are more understanding of what the loss may mean to others, and they are able to show empathy. Children in the upper end of this range not only need support and comfort, but also can be a source of support and comfort for others. Opportunities to be helpful to others during the crisis can actually help children deal with their own feelings.
To the emotionally healthy adolescent, death is foreign; it's something they simply do not want to think about. Sometimes their self-destructive behavior, such as alcohol or drug abuse or playing chicken in an automobile are means of saying "I'm not afraid of death; it's a game--I'm making a plaything of it."
However, the real meaning beneath the behavior is that they're trying to control their fear and insecurity by making it a game. Moving fast and keeping the music loud can be an escape from having to face their fears.
When met with the loss of an important relationship, the adolescent's self-centered values may cause them great fear, guilt, anxiety, and anger. Adolescents have the capacity for empathy with other grieving family members or friends, so their pain is doubled.
Because an adolescent forms more intimate relationships with peers than with parents, it's advisable that networks or groups be make available for adolescents who have experienced the death of a loved one.
The adolescent may respond well to another adult who is willing to listen and assume a surrogate parent role with them. While reluctant to participate in their own family grief or support groups, they may respond well to a pastor, school counselor, or another adolescent who "understands."
Caretakers of a grieving adolescent should not be discouraged if their teen reaches to someone other than family. That's normal at this stage of development.
Authored by Yvonne Butler Clark, author, It's Okay to Cry
Helping Children Understand Death
by Karen Nilsen
STAR Class Founder for Funeralplan.com
The days surrounding a death can be a confusing and disorienting time for young children. Altered daily routines and unfamiliar sights and sounds can be difficult for them to understand and cope with. Children notice even the most subtle changes in their routines and surroundings. We must validate their feelings and encourage them to share their thoughts, fears, and observations of the events taking place around them.
Most important, I believe, is to first find out what your child already knows about death, then what they think they know, and then provide the facts in simple, honest, terms.
Explaining death to children is similar to talking to kids about sex, except that many parents find death a more difficult topic. We often use euphemisms such as "passed away" "Grandpa is sleeping," or "we lost Grandma" instead of the words "dead" and "died." These softened explanations can cause fears in a young
child that they too may get lost or go down for a nap and never wake up. Or worse yet, as 4-year-old Clayton asked, “What if I go to sleep and wake up in a casket like my Grandpa?”
Children see the evidence that livings things die in many areas of their lives. They see and hear about it on the television, in movies--even cartoons, and on an ordinary walk in the park or to school, e.g. a dead bird, a squirrel, or other small animal. They notice the change of the seasons as plants and trees appear to wither and die.
They may have experienced the death of a pet. It's hard not to notice the difference between a live goldfish and one floating motionless on the top of the fish bowl. Death causes changes in a living thing. Very young children may not be able to fully comprehend the complexities, but they are aware that death looks and feels different.
If possible, begin a dialogue with your child about how all living things on this earth will die someday. Death is a reality; we can't hide it from our children. It is the circle of life. If the situation arises where a plant, pet or animal dies, allow the child to investigate it, see it, touch it, even smell it.
With an accepting adult standing close by or holding a child while he/she discovers death on the sidewalk, children often adopt the attitude and the emotion of the adult. Talk about feelings. Share your feelings with your child. Tell him that when someone or something dies, we might feel sad, mad, or confused. And sometimes we might even cry--and that's okay.
Explain the difference between an "alive" bird and a dead one. When the bird was alive, he could fly, and sing, and eat worms, but now, his body has died. It doesn't work anymore. He cannot see, or hear, or move. His body is dead. You may even hold a "funeral ceremony" for the animal. Explain that a funeral is a time to say good-bye. It is a Special Time to Always Remember.
Another readily available example in a child's world is a simple flower. You can show the child a living flower. Point out its qualities of life--e.g., vibrant color, soft velvety petals, strong sturdy stem and enjoyable fragrance. If you want, you may even discuss the flower's purpose here on earth. It brings us joy, brightens a room, provides food for insects and bees, etc. Then show the child a flower that has died. Compare its qualities to the living flower. The flower has changed. Allow the child to
touch and smell the flower.
When talking to a child about the death of a family member or friend, remind them that like the flower, or bird, or pet, the body of their loved one has changed. It cannot see, or hear, or move. Look through photo albums, talk about special memories and their relationship with the deceased.
Read books available for children. Acknowledge your child's feelings. Reassure them that sad and mad feelings are normal and okay. Allow them to attend the funeral or memorial service for their special person. Encourage them to write a letter or draw a picture that can be placed in the casket or displayed near the urn
You may want to talk about your family's faith tradition. Heaven is another concept which is a life long learning process.
Death IS a frightening concept for all of us. But, with loving explanations, acceptance of feelings and an opportunity to express those feelings, a child can begin to understand that death is a part of life.
Helping Parents Cope With Losing a Spouse
What can you do to help your parent through his or her grief when a spouse dies? This is one of the major losses in life, but there are things you can do to help.
Acceptance--Be accepting and supportive of the new person your parent becomes in the wake of this devastating loss. Support him or her in new ventures and new friendships. Your parent must find a new way to live, and build a new life for himself or herself.
Decisions--Let your parent decide when and how to dispose of the deceased's clothing and personal items. Some may not be ready to do this right away. Others may want to get it over with almost as soon as they get home from the funeral.
Family Traditions--Let your family traditions change and evolve to fit your family's new structure. Don't force things that don't work without the deceased, or that are exceptionally painful without him or her.
Independence--Help your parent be independent. Teach him or her something new that the deceased used to do rather than taking it on yourself. This could be anything from balancing the checkbook to maintaining the car to cooking.
Major Decisions--Encourage your parent to delay making major decisions, such as selling a home or moving to a new part of the country--for at least one year after the death. Discourage other major financial decisions as well.
Money--Your parent may be tempted to loan money to family or friends. Help them resist this urge, at least until they have a better understanding of their new financial circumstances, whether it's for better or worse.
New Life--Encourage your parent to make a new life for himself or herself. Encourage him or her to make new friends, take up new activities, and find new focus in life.
Talking--Talk about the deceased parent. Tell stories, and bring up his or her name often. Talking about the person keeps the memories alive and helps the healing process.
Telephone--Call your parent frequently, and make sure they feel comfortable calling you more often. A surviving parent may become very dependent on his or her children for communication and companionship, at least in the short term.
Helping Others Experiencing Grief
There are many ways to be supportive of a person experiencing the grieving process.
Listening to grieving people is the most important thing you can do. Listen in a non-judging way, and allow them to tell the story or stories over and over if they need to. Repetition is often a key part of the healing process.
Share your memories of the loved one, too. Reflect on the feelings they are experiencing--but as you share, be careful not to start one-upping their feelings, or comparing your loss to theirs. And don't say "I know exactly how you feel." It's usually much more helpful to say something along the lines of "I can't imagine what you must be feeling right now," because most grieving people feel like no one else could know what they're experiencing.
It's also important not to tell people that time heals all wounds, or that their loved one is in a better place. While that may be true (depending on your belief system--and theirs) they're not in a place to hear that at this point.
Each person recovers from grief at his or her own pace. Some can recover quickly, while others can take a full year or more (this will also depend on the severity of the loss). Be careful not to impose a time limit or tell people to get over it and move on--feeling that they've grieved too long can cause people to suppress their feelings, and slow or stop the healing process.
Understand that grieving people are very likely to have emotional setbacks, even after a long period of healing and outward "improvement." Something could spark a memory that causes them to spiral downwards--dates that were important in the loved one's life, such as birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays, are often triggers for setbacks.
Be there for the grieving person as long as (s)he needs you.
Remember that there's no definitive way to experience grieving, and that everyone experiences a unique set of feelings or physical symptoms. Understand that the grieving person will always feel the loss, but that he or she will learn to live with it over time.
It may sound strange to talk about celebrating, but it can help grieving people heal. Help them celebrate the life of the loved one they've lost. Help them develop rituals they need to get through the difficult early stages of the grieving process.
Sometimes grieving people can go to extremes--if you notice signs of suicidal behavior or fear they may harm themselves or others, it's your moral, legal, and ethical duty to refer them to a mental health professional.
The Grieving Process
Since there's very little grief training in our culture, people are often surprised by how hard their grief hits them. We usually don't know what to expect until we experience a major loss and begin to suffer the consequences.
It's important to understand that grief is a pervasive experience that impacts the whole person--physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. It's also important not to be afraid to experience grief symptoms--many people try to put their grief aside and "get over it," but this only delays the healing process. As you go through the grieving process,
you'll probably experience three distinct phases of grief.
Shock and Denial
Most people experience this as their initial reaction--shock, a feeling of numbness or unreality, and possibly even denial that the loved one is gone. In this initial phase, our minds begin to adjust to the loss of our loved one.
Because this is such a difficult time, thinking about or experiencing grief constantly is too painful, so we go back and forth between believing the loss has happened and a sense of denial or unreality. It's critical to give yourself time to adjust to the loss and to come to terms with it. This stage can last as long as several weeks.
This is a time of chaos for individuals experiencing grief at the loss of a loved one as they try to adjust to the world without the person in it. During this phase, we are intensely aware of the reality of our loss, but will try almost anything to escape it.
This is a period of exhaustion and intense emotion, and the grieving person will often experience mood swings, sometimes dramatic ones. Normal emotions at this stage include anger, extreme sadness, depression, despair, and extreme jealousy of others who haven't suffered the same loss.
During this stage, people begin to understand all the implications of the loss and begin to rebuild their life. This stage can last a year or more.
This stage is also known as acceptance or reorganization. The disrupted stage people go through comes to an end as they find a new balance. People in mourning become aware that the physical signs of their grief are beginning to fade and that they are less exhausted than they once were.
The pain of the loss remains, but the unbearable intensity of it recedes, and people begin to experience hope again. Life begins to seem possible again.
Losing a Child...Losing Your Future?
It has been said that parents who lose a child also lose the hopes, dreams, and expectations they had for that child. They lose a part of themselves. They lose their future because their child represents their sense of ongoing life. Psychologists believe, because of these reasons, the death of a child is possibly the most difficult loss of all to accept.
People who have children often feel that parenting is life’s most important role, regardless of the child’s age. Therefore, the death of a child can be a tremendous assault on a parent’s very identity.
What to Expect
If your child has died, you will most likely experience several common reactions of bereavement. However, your grief can be more acute than normal. You may go into periods of shock and denial. You will likely become depressed. If you are normally a committed, caring person, you could find that you do not care about anything or anyone. You may find yourself preoccupied with the circumstances of your child’s death, recreating them over and over again in your mind. You may think you see or hear your child. You might have dreams and nightmares about them.
The intense grief caused by your child’s death can take a physical toll as well. You may lose weight, have difficulty sleeping, become irritable or listless, or feel short of breath. Grief has even been known to cause hair loss.
Anger and Guilt
Perhaps the most acute feelings you will experience are anger and guilt. Because the death of a child does not follow the normal order of nature, there is a strong urge to place the blame on someone or something. You may be angry at the doctors or nurses who could not cure your child’s illness, or at God for "letting" your child die. If your child died because of a traumatic accident, you may be angry at whomever you believe caused it. If your child’s actions partly caused the death, you may be angry at him or her and then feel guilty about your anger toward your child.
Parents often feel terribly guilty for simply living. If you had an argument with your child or had to discipline him or her shortly before the death, you may feel guilty for those actions.
You may feel the most guilt because you believe you should have prevented your child’s death. You may find yourself consumed by thoughts of "if only."
A father tends to suffer guilt over failing to prevent a child’s death. While both parents feel responsible for their child’s safety, men have often been taught that protecting the family is their primary role.
The Grief Experience
While bereaved parents know they will experience intense grief, their child’s death can have another effect they did not anticipate. The death could alter their feelings toward each other. Almost always, the marriage will never be the same. The change could be for the better or for the worse. However, the relationship rarely stays the same.
Parents think their grief will be similar because they have lost the same child. This similar type of mourning rarely happens. The relationship the father mourns is different from the relationship the mother mourns because each parent shared a different relationship with the child.
Fathers may have a more difficult time expressing their grief, believing on some level that "big boys don’t cry," or that they need to be strong for their surviving family. Unfortunately, this may keep fathers from working through their grief and resolving it. It may become necessary to seek counseling or spiritual help.
Couples may experience difficulty in communicating after the death of their child. The intensity of grief comes at different times for each parent. One parent may use work as an escape while the other finds solace in photo albums and home videos. Dad may feel the need to box up and store the child’s personal belongings while Mom cannot bear to look at them. A physical resemblance to the dead child can also cause difficulties between the parents.
A child’s death may cause sexual problems within a marriage as well. Time, patience, and communication are key elements to resolving these problems. It is not uncommon for these effects to last up to two years or more following the child’s death.
Answering the Questions of Your Other Children
Your other children will look to you to explain the death to them. A child’s questions will depend on their age, but your answers should always be honest. Guard against telling children that their brother or sister is "sleeping," or that "God wanted their brother or sister." These may simply cause other fears in your children that may be more difficult to resolve than a more direct answer. Be direct, without offering more information than necessary.
Young children sometimes fantasize that they caused the death by being mean to the deceased sibling or by fighting with them. In this case, it is important to assure your child that he/she had nothing to do with their brother’s or sister’s death.
Remember, your other children need to resolve their grief. They will take their cues from you, so support them in their grief by being open in showing yours. You will not do them any favors by protecting them from the grieving process; in fact, there is no way you can.
Dealing with Grief
It may not be possible to work through your grief alone. We can recommend support groups, counselors, books, and videos which deal specifically with child bereavement. Ask us to recommend a specific book, or visit your local library.
It is important for parents to realize that severe grief can make them feel like they’re going crazy. If you are afraid your grief is out of control, you might consider asking your clergy, doctor, or funeral director to suggest a counselor. You may be relieved to find that your problems, in this situation, are normal.
Finally, remember that other people will likely feel very awkward around you because they will not know what to say. You can help bridge the gap by simply telling them what you need and letting them know if it is all right to mention your deceased child.
Losing Your Spouse, Losing the Present
How can one possibly absorb the shock of the death of a mate? No matter how many years you have shared, memories of courtship, lifelong plans, and your marriage are most difficult to bear. Not to mention what has been left behind: children and grandchildren; dreams yet to be fulfilled. These memories are part of your past and the death of your spouse is something you must deal with today. The thought of which is painful at the very least.
Reactions to Death
If your spouse has died, you will probably experience some of the common symptoms of grief. You will very likely go into shock and denial. You may experience feelings similar to what an amputee goes through, where they actually "feel" pain in the missing limb. In the case of a lost loved one, you’ll “see” them sitting in their favorite chair or coming through the front door. This "phantom" pain may manifest itself in hearing their voice calling from another room. Their cologne or perfume lingers in closets and throughout the home you shared, evoking powerful feelings.
You may feel "numb," like a spectator watching events unfold. This is nature’s way of protecting you from what is happening while your life is in transition.
You may also find yourself filled with anger. You may feel angry at the doctors or nurses who couldn’t save your spouse, or maybe even with God. You may feel anger toward your spouse for leaving you, and then feel guilty for this anger.
In fact, guilt can be one of the toughest feelings to overcome in your grief recovery. It is common, in transition, to feel guilty simply for being alive when someone else has died. You may believe you somehow could have prevented the death, or should have been present to say good-bye.
Because relationships are never perfect, you undoubtedly had unresolved issues at the time of death. These can be very difficult to overcome, and many choose to seek counseling to help bring about closure.
Powerful reactions to grief are most often unexpected by the bereaved. The effects are physical as well as mental. The feeling of being alone causes your mind to race. You cannot sleep. You cannot think clearly. Your muscles are tense and your body aches.
It is not unusual to experience nausea, dizziness, rashes, weight loss, in addition to difficulty in sleeping. You may become irritable or listless, feel fatigued, or short of breath. Grief has even been known to cause hair loss.
As the Shock Wears Off
The acceptance of your spouse’s death will slowly become a reality. You may think "My life will never be the same again." "I
cannot change what has happened to me." "Oh God, what am I going to do now?" A course of grief recovery depends partly on your age and mostly on your individual situation.
A surviving spouse from a younger, two-income family may end up in a tight financial situation; not to mention any children to consider, as the transition to a single-parent household is made.
Profound loneliness occurs when future plans include having children and the opportunity is lost by the death of a spouse. This is especially true if the bereaved feels a child would have been a living part of the mate who died.
"Empty-nesters" feel the effects of a spouse’s death in other ways. The fact that the house is completely empty now, precipitates an entirely different level of loneliness. This is especially true in marriages that have lasted many years, where plans for a long and enjoyable retirement were disrupted by a spouse’s death.
Losing your life companion can leave you feeling confused and panicky at any age. For this reason, you should delay making any major decisions. Try to postpone them until you can think more clearly and have a better idea of how your life is going to change. Antoine de Saint-Exup’ery wrote, "... you cannot plant an acorn in the morning and expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak."
You have grown accustomed to living a certain life-style and engaging in favorite activities with your spouse. You are used to being the object of your spouse’s love. For example, a woman who becomes a widow didn’t just lose her husband. She lost her best friend, her confidant, her "knight in shining armor."
The death of your spouse can also change the relationship you had with mutual friends. Those same friends you socialized with as a couple, may have a difficult time interacting with you as an individual. You may begin to feel like the "fifth wheel." Life without your spouse may steer you in the direction of a new circle of friends. Many times, lasting friendships develop between people who met in grief support groups. Your loss is a common bond.
How can you overcome the problems you face after your spouse has died? First, you must recognize that grief is necessary; it is something you must work through. There are no shortcuts.
It is important to express your feelings. Take time to cry. Don’t be afraid to share your tears with others. Express your anger when you feel the need. Talk openly with family members and friends; this is a time to lean on them. Some of your friends may feel awkward for awhile because they don’t know how to talk to you about your loss. You can help them by simply telling them what your needs are. Don’t try to protect your children or other family members by hiding your sadness.
If you normally have a pressing schedule, try to lighten it. Remember, grief is mentally taxing; you do not need the added strain of too much to do. Set aside some quiet time for yourself, time when you can think about your spouse’s death and put things into perspective.
If you are worried that you are not coping well with your grief, consider talking to a counselor. You may be relieved to discover that you are reacting normally. If you believe you need help, ask your clergy, doctor, or funeral director to suggest a counselor who will help you through your transition.
Many bereaved spouses find adjusting to life without a partner becomes easier if they talk to others in the same situation. You might want to consider joining a local support group. Ask us for information regarding local groups specifically for those who have lost a spouse.
After some time and effort, you will adjust to your new life and your grief will diminish. This does not mean you must forget your loved one; it means you have accepted the death and can begin to live each day in the present, savoring the memories as part of your new life. In fact, many agree the best way to honor a loved one who died, is to live a life full of friendship and even new love.
Dealing properly with your grief can make it all possible.
Coping Through the Holidays After Losing a Loved One
Halloween barely passes before stores stock their shelves with holiday decorations. Christmas carols echo through shopping malls, and the first of the holiday commercials hits the airwaves. If you've lost a loved one, these can be stark reminders that the holidays won't be the same.
Whether your loved one died recently or decades ago, the holidays bring forth powerful memories that may trigger your grief. If the person died on or near a holiday, the two events are forever linked and may be particularly painful, especially if you have unresolved feelings about the lost relationship.
When trying to cope with grief, it's important to understand that grief is cumulative. We don't experience a loss, move through predetermined emotional stages, then emerge on the other side.
This holiday season, if the first Christmas card you open or the first "Happy Hanukkah!" you hear starts to bring on sadness, use that opportunity to work through your feelings. Don't just ignore those feelings. Here are some tips to help you cope.
If someone you know is grieving:
"At least he's not suffering anymore"
"She's in a better place."
"I know you'll miss him."
"I know how you feel."
Grief Recovery Institute®
Holiday Hotline: (800) 445-4808
National Funeral Directors Association
(800) 228-6332 or (262) 789-1880