When a Child Loses a Significant Other

Good Grief – a Journey Towards Wholeness

Margaret Mead once said, “When a person is born, we rejoice, and when they are married, we jubilate, but when they die, we try to pretend that nothing has happened.”  There are many kinds of grief, and bereavement is a unique form.  Not only does it touch every grief we have ever experienced in our lives, every hurt, every injury, every rejection, it also takes away the defenses we normally have in place to deal with those griefs.  Suddenly, and for the first time, the body is dealt a blow so critical that the child facing loss actually becomes ill themselves – or even dies.

Today as never before, doctors have documented evidence to demonstrate that grief can, in fact, make people sick.  Health problems such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and even skin problems can often tract their onset to a traumatic event that the child translates as grief.  With the first shock of grief, the body slows itself down in an effort to save itself.  Grieving, especially the loss of a loved one, is very deconstructing.  The child feels a tremendous loss of energy and is, in essence, leading physical and emotional strength.  Depression sets in, and that is not a bad thing, for the reduced activity allows the child to reserve energy while he is basically functioning on empty.  This period of shock is draining. The immune system is often impaired at his stage of grief.  A lower activity of lymphocytes, a weakened T-cell strength and a lower antigen levels all converge to impair the body’s ability to fight off disease.  This diminished physical state informs the child’s reality.  While pain and suffering are mounting, the disbelief of loss places the bereaved child in a vulnerable position.  Feelings common to the early stages of grieving include:

1.  Numbness

2.  Disbelief

3.  Detachment

4.  Aversion to food

5.  And an overall disturbance in body functioning.


Traumatic emotional loss is so abhorrent to the mind that the child cannot cope with it.  The young ego self has suffered a possible mortal blow, and to integrate it all at once causes death.

The bereaved child becomes detached from his feelings, in a sense, out of time.  The worst has happened and nothing can restore a state of normalcy again.  Since bereavement is a particular kind of grief, and not a mental disorder, children do not recover from it.  To try is a waste of energy impacted by a sense of failure.  It is more a process of adapting.

There is a deep sadness that accompanies living with loss.  One must learn to relieve without their loved one.  Following this destruction of the original self, a new self develops – one who will always be in pain, but who does not have to suffer.  The approach is to allow the child to grieve, to have the pain, to surrender to it, and not contract against it.  Contraction is what causes suffering.  Over time, the child integrates the loved one into his life.  And like a butterfly that sits on his shoulder, the child now lives on with that loved one’s past, present and future incorporated and internalized.

For the child, the steps of grieving include both an inward and outward adjustment.  These stages happen either simultaneously or over time.  The process itself is a life’s work.  We never sever the ties with the people we have loved and lost.  We do come, however, to an acceptance of a new reality.  Life for this child will never be the same again, b=but it will go on, and the intense pain will soften as it ebbs and flows over the years.  It is the way this child is guided through his grief process that will determine the quality of how he will live his life.

Healing through love is the alchemy that moves the child forward toward wholeness.  While grieving, the child’s caretaker should honor and pay attention to his physical, nutritional and emotional needs.  It is vital that this child be allowed to express his feelings and be with his grief.  There must be time given for the process.  The stages of grief, according to Kubler Ross are:

1.  Denial and isolation, 2.  Anger, 3.  Bargaining, 4.  Depression, 5.  Acceptance, 6.  and Hope.  These are all natural to the human psyche.  According to Bulby and Parks, the emotional stages that accompany these physical markers are:  1.  Shock and numbness, 2.  Yearning and searching, 3.  Disorganization and despair, and then 4.  Reorganization.  It is important at this time to create strategies for the child to effect and inward and outward healing.  Relationships that have been intact up to this point are often threatened and sometimes dissolved with the onset of grief, as the bereaved child transfers his feeling of grief inadequacy, and guilt to those relationships.

One of the techniques used here to effect an inward healing is analytical therapy – a feedback system used to bring the bereaved child into conscious awareness.  Different children channel their grief in different ways.  There is no model of right and wrong, except allowing the child a safe place in which to grieve.  Grief has its own timing so it in necessary for the child to experience the immensity of the process.  The adults must give children permission to live.  At first, it is just about getting through the day, realizing that the things that normally define the child and his activities are no longer his reality.

Healing begins and ends with the heart.  It is a life-long process.  How do we help children grieve?  Adults must make sure that:

1.  Grieving children get plenty of rest.

2.  Grieving children should eat a balanced diet.

3.  Grieving children should drink plenty of water.

4.  Grieving children should exercise, but remember that fatigue is often a characteristic of both loss and depression.

5.  Grieving children should meet with other children in therapeutic groups such as those offered by the Compassionate Friends.  Here they can stay connected to children who have experienced a similar personal story.  It is through relating to other children in cohesive groups that allows the grieving child to begin to model successful survival skills.

6.  Psychoanalytic therapy and medication may be needed so that both a psychiatrist and pediatrician should be incorporated into a healing time to support the child and help the child stay healthy, while under extreme stress.

Meeting at the edge of this crossroad of life at such a tender age is a wounding that often makes injured children very empathic.  Children should be allowed to attend funerals if they wish, so that there is a sense of reality and closure to this unthinkable event.  Depending upon the age of the child, there are positive outlets that can help children express their feelings when speaking is too difficult.  Children should be allowed to participate in the rituals that say goodbye.  Encourage the grieving child to express and vent shock, anger, fear and pain.  Caretakers and professionals, as well as teachers and clergy, can all join together to help the bereaved child stay connected to life.  A grief team of adults can re-establish a child’s trust and support in an unsafe world.

Children today, as never before, have many opportunities to distract themselves from their grief and delay healing – whether it is computer games, television or movies – the outcome is the same – a disassociation from feelings.  It is important to facilitate opportunities for children who are grieving to integrate their feelings of loss so that they can once again emerge as individuated.  Sound therapies that connect the child back to his observational ego so that he can reflect upon and express his true feelings and sense of who he is can be helped through role playing, dance therapy, art, singing and psychotherapy.  This helps the child release the psychological blocks that have thrown him back to an earlier, more primitive stage of development.  These strategies bring to consciousness the trauma and help the child sort out his feelings.  It is only through this reconnection of the child to his center that allows for healing.

We must be honest with these grieving children.  Answer their questions and model authenticity for them.  Children should be included in every stage of decision-making that has to do with their own personal grieving, so that they have options and choices, which reasserts their sense of integrity.

The emotional energy of grief can transcend and by transcending, be transformed into life.  Joy and vitality can once again be expressed creatively when the energy that is used to repress trauma and injury is released.  Children who grieve can live again, and by grieving, move through the paralysis of despair and the empty void of helplessness, through to the journey towards wholeness.