Children’s Grief Awareness Day is a reminder that children feel and experience grief and pain as acutely as adults. They may experience a wide range of emotions – anger, depression, confusion, frustration, anxiety – but they may not yet have the words to identify and express these emotions. And because they have not yet learned to verbalise emotions in the way adults do, children are often referred to as the “forgotten mourners”. Yet, like adults, children understand grief and pain through internal narratives – stories that they have told themselves, and ones they hear and see in their own lives. The content of these stories has the power to shift children’s thinking. Just as importantly, adults have the power to bring these stories home to help them handle the pain and confusion associated with grief.
Stories and Resilience
“Storytelling is one of the primary ways that humans make coherent sense out of seemingly unrelated sequences of events… Those who are able to develop the capacity to reason narratively will be able to have a more comprehensive understanding of the human experience.” - Sarah E. Worth
Children learn how to express grief from their parents or caregivers – in other words, adults model coping behaviour. The more parents and caregivers engage with the experience of pain in a positive way, the more children learn to understand the nuances of loss and grief, leading to better resilience. And resilient children do better in life as they have the ability to bounce back and cope well despite having experienced profound problems (Rutter, 1985).
Support and interaction, as with most aspects of childhood development, are essential for children in developing resilience. But with very young children, the concept of talking about and engaging with emotions can be a little abstract. When these issues are grounded in the stories they can interact with, however, it becomes a much easier task to help them understand what they’re feeling and how to handle it.
Children internalise narratives that they see and hear at home. In fact, very young children understand life and emotions through the daily practice of storytelling. Hearing about people in stories who face similar challenges helps children feel less isolated and alone – which is key in facing grief. These stories provide an easy pathway for adults to explore feelings and reactions with children simply through conversation:
- Why did you think the character felt sad?
- What would you do if you were in that position?
- Do you think he would want his friends to help him?
- What do you think he should do now?
Additional strategies to engage with grieving children of various ages include:
- Using dolls and toys to act out feelings. This is ideal for very young children who cannot yet express their pain.
- Writing a daily journal together. Teenagers may prefer this, but make sure that they are comfortable with sharing their writing.
- Discussing the lyrics of a relevant song that they know. Songs are often stories in themselves that hold powerful narratives children or youngsters may be able to relate to.
- Sharing stories (written, audio, visual) that deal with similar issues AND discussing these stories together afterwards.
The more children are exposed to this kind of interactive storytelling and engagement, the more practised they will become at identifying feelings and expressing themselves in difficult and painful situations. Moreover, it gives parents and caregivers the power to be able to connect and bond with their children during difficult times – which is key for resilience development and psychological wellbeing.