Grief is an emotion so powerful that words cannot quite express the pain. Spirituality can be a powerful source of support during times of loss. Hope, faith and belief have been found to be protective factors associated with resilience in children. Many profound and complicated questions arise when faced with an untimely death or violent tragedy. Children may experience a wide variety of feelings, such as confusion, pain, anger, sadness and fear, to name a few. Children seek to make meaning and understand what is happening to them and why. In doing that, they call upon various sources of information, including their spiritual values. It is important children have adults that can listen, provide containment, and encourage exploration.
Mourning and grief look different for each child; it’s a personal process with many factors, and it is not linear. Some children may express pain through crying, anger, withdrawing or acting out. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1969) conceptualized grief as a response to death; from that lens, she identified five stages that are seen as cycles instead of linear. These stages are reactions to loss and a way to help us navigate the intense feelings. She identified the five stages as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. David Kessler introduced the sixth stage, finding meaning. This stage can be transformative and help individuals find peace and hope through their experiences. I do not view the sixth stage as a goal but as part of the cyclical process.
Finding meaning is an integral part of our human experience. Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning. Through his experience of suffering and loss, he presents a theory on human suffering—one of choice, finding meaning, and renewed purpose. It is a process of finding peace in the unknown answers, which I consider as having faith and spirituality.
It is important to provide space and activities for children that may foster conversations for making meaning of loss and grief. It can look like sitting with a child in their pain or helping them label their feelings or put words to their internal experiences. Many children (and adults) may question their spirituality; they may be angry towards a higher power or deity. Providing containment for their anger increases their sense of safety and validates their experience and feelings.
Here are some practical applications that can be implemented as you help your child navigate suffering:
- Maintaining routines; this helps rebuild their sense of safety and familiarity
- Share your feelings in an age-appropriate way; sharing how you feel provides an example they can model
- Ask open-ended questions to understand their perspectives
- Integrate spiritual practices into your daily routines, such as going on a walk and engaging your senses; listening to spiritual music; or spending time coloring how you are feeling.
Integrating the child’s view of a higher power, God, or universe as a source of comfort and security is important for their spiritual wellbeing and resilience. The more a child feels safe and loved by others (including a higher power/God), the more they can make meaning of difficult life experiences.
Pay attention to your child’s nonverbal messages and notice any changes in their behaviors, thoughts, emotions and interactions. There will be changes; however, getting a professional’s opinion may be warranted if you are concerned about your child’s emotional and mental wellbeing. We encourage families to reach out to Clarity Child Guidance Center with concerns. In the case of crisis, we have a crisis assessment center that is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.