Emotions are complex and sometimes go unrecognized, except when people behave in extreme ways. Grief is one of the emotions that is often unobserved by the people around us. Grief develops from various life circumstances for adults as well as children. Causes of grief are not limited to loss of a loved one; grief can result from any loss in the form of death, change, disappointment, or confusion. As you might imagine, this becomes additionally difficult for children who often do not have the same history of processing emotions as some adults.
While grief presents differently for everyone, there are symptoms and behaviors we can look for when interacting with children. Occasionally childhood symptoms can look a bit different than in adults, but they overlap with some select similarities. Children suffering through loss may experience anger outbursts and nightmares, as well as isolating themselves from their peers. They may lose interest in toys and activities that they previously liked. Physical symptoms and complaints often coincide with grief for children who are unable to process their emotions effectively. Youth leaders can be on the lookout for these symptoms when engaging with children and youth of all ages.
Creating safe and supportive spaces for children and youth can look like providing a calm, sensory-friendly space and allowing for extra time and autonomy from the child. Youth leaders can consider the noise volume of a room, light intensity, and activity levels when working with grieving youth. Some children will not be ready to engage in activities immediately; therefore providing various options will be helpful in allowing space and time for each person’s needs. Making the child and caretakers expressly aware that you are able to listen and provide support through conversation and prayer is crucial. As faith leaders, we can remind children of the passage “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). Christ provides love and comfort for all, and most often children feel this through the support of adults and peers.
In faith communities, we are occasionally aware of the specific losses early on, but that does not mean we have the best resources for everyone’s experience. When a child’s grief and emotional processing is beyond our scope, it is imperative we provide outside resources to the children and their caretakers. This way they may uncover their emotional turmoil in safe and supportive environments that are prepared for their needs. Resources for grief counseling can be found through state mental health care, school-funded therapy, or national organizations such as the National Alliance for Children’s Grief.
You might also consider having books available for grieving children, such as The Memory Box.