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Coping with Grief in Children

Grief through a Child’s Eyes

For children and teenagers, the death of a parent, sibling or other loved one is an experience that will change their lives forever. Right now thousands of children throughout Oklahoma are dealing with the loss of a loved one. Grief can make a child’s life seem out of control. Children may be bombarded with emotions and they have neither the life experience nor the coping skills necessary to handle them.

Support Groups Can Help

Support groups bring help and healing to children who are living in difficult, painful times. At Calm Waters, children find a safe and supportive place to share their feelings and experiences in a group of peers who have all experienced similar loss. Through a variety of art and play activities, as well as discussions, healing can begin. Parents find help and support also, as they meet with other adults, share their concerns and learn how to help themselves and their children through turbulent times.

Calm Waters offers free grief support groups for children (3 – 18 years of age) and their families. Since feelings of loss vary with age, children meet in groups with other peers in the same age range. Guided by trained volunteer facilitators, these children support one another, share experiences and feelings and begin to heal. While the children meet, their parents/guardians also meet to gain an understanding of what their children are experiencing and to learn how to help them through these times of change.

Grief Support Group Schedule

Calm Waters grief support groups meet on Monday evenings from 6:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m. for 16 weeks. Grief groups are ongoing, which means you can attend for as long as you feel the need. Consistent, weekly attendance is the most beneficial for the family.

Calm Waters is currently taking registrations for grief support groups. Once your registration form has been received, a Calm Waters’ staff member will contact you to schedule an intake appointment prior to the beginning of groups.  The intake appointment determines group readiness and is required for all who want to attend Calm Waters groups.  Families may join at any time once their completed registration paperwork has been received and an intake has been conducted.

New sessions begin every August and January. Calm Waters is currently accepting registrations for grief support groups beginning August 24, 2015.

To register, download the printable registration – Grief Group Registration Form and mail or fax back to Calm Waters.  Questions or inquiries can be directed to Program Director Maribeth Govin

Faces of Grief in Children

  • Apparent Indifference-Detachment: Children may be sad when they first learn of their loss, but only a short time later they may act as though they are fine. When going though the process of grief, it is normal for emotions to fluctuate in this way.
  • Acting Out: Acting out is a non-verbal way of communicating distress. Children may not know the words to express their feelings or emotions after a major loss or the death of a loved one. These feelings are often expressed through a change in behavior.
  • “Big Man” to “Big Woman” Syndrome: After the death of a parent or the divorce of their parents, children are often overwhelmed with the thought that they now have to be “the man of the house or the woman of the house.” When this occurs, children tend to bypass normal developmental stages in which their identity and self-esteem are established.
  • Change in Eating Behaviors: Children may experience a change in appetite for a period of time. This is a normal reaction to grief.
  • Explosive Emotions: Feelings of anger, blame, resentment, rage, terror, jealously or hostility may surface in children and adults during times of grief. In children, these expressions provide a means of temporarily protesting the painful realization of their loss. This is often distressing to those who live with the explosive emotions, but is a normal part of the grieving process.
  • Fear: Children who have lost one parent may fear the loss of the other. Or they may be afraid they will die, too. In divorce, if one parent moves out and sees the children less frequently, the child may fear that the other parent will also leave him or her.
  • Guilt and Self-Blame: Children have a tendency to be self-focused. Thus, they believe that they are responsible for things that happen around them. Explain to the child that he/she did not cause it.
  • Mystical behavior: Children may think they hear their lost loved one’s voice, or they may think they see their lost loved one. On occasion, they may “sense” the presence of the person who died. These experiences all fall within the range of normal if this happens occasionally. If these signs continue for more than one or two months or become more intense, professional help should be pursued.
  • Lack of Concentration and Ability to Focus: Children may have difficulty sitting still or focusing on their schoolwork or chores at home after a loss. They may have a tendency to daydream or “bounce off the walls.” At times, these symptoms may look like ADHD or ADD in children when they are actually normal expressions of grief. Structure and reassurance from parents will be helpful when experiencing this.
  • Loss and Loneliness: As the child realizes that the person who died will not come back or that the parents will not reconcile, feelings of loss and loneliness occur. As children struggle with the finality of death or divorce, depression may occur in varying degrees. They may become lethargic, less interested in being with friends or family members, and anxious or nervous. They may develop low self-esteem or experience a change in sleeping habits and appetite. This is a natural grief response.
  • Fixated Behaviors: Children may become overly absorbed/fixated with the death of their loved one. Some children exhibit behaviors such as wearing the deceased’s clothing or carrying belongings of the deceased with them.
  • Physiological Symptoms: Children’s expressions of grief often take the form of physical ailments: sore throats, stomachaches, headaches, and exhaustion. Their resistance to illness may be lowered. Their bodies are expressing what they can’t express in words. Children with these symptoms may need to be held and comforted.
  • Regression: Grieving children may revert to an earlier period of their lives when they felt safe. Parents can help by holding, nurturing and understanding the child’s need to grieve in this way.
  • Relief: Sometimes death occurs after a long illness. Life has revolved around the illness and when it is over there may be a feeling of relief. In cases of high conflict or abusive relationships, divorce can be a relief to parents and children alike. Children will look forward to returning to a normal lifestyle.
  • Reconciliation: After a time (which is different for each person), children and adults will begin to accept that their lives will never be the same as before – there is a “new normal” for them. They have learned to live with their loss.
  • Vivid Dreams: Children and adults may experience very vivid dreams in which their loved one is present. Once the person awakens, he/she may have difficulty coming back to reality.

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Faces of Grief in Adolescents

By the time children reach adolescence, they have developed a mature understanding of death. Adolescents understand that death is inevitable and irreversible, that it involves the cessation of psychological functioning, and that it results from biological causes.

When adolescents experience the death of someone close to them, they need adults to be there to help them through their grief. They need someone who will listen to them, understand and accept their emotions, and provide firm, but gentle guidance. Adolescents have many of the same feelings and reactions to a death that an adult would. However, the way they process their grief may be different.


Adolescents need guidance to help them understand where they fit-in and what they are expected to do. When parents are faced with their own feelings of grief and loss, they may be unable to provide needed support and boundaries.

  • For adolescents, their struggle to come to terms with the loss may be intertwined with the developmental task of formulating a personal sense of the meaning of life. They may perceive death as an enemy to the new self that is emerging. They may question the purpose of life if people grow up and then die.
  • Adolescents may feel torn between meeting the needs of family by assuming more responsibility around home (chores, care of siblings, care for grieving parent) and satisfying their own need to be with friends and peer groups.
  • Adolescents are very concerned about their image and what other people think of them. They may not be comfortable with showing emotion (Inside they may have a whirlwind of feelings while they appear to be collected and strong).
  • Adolescents can be especially vulnerable to separation and loss, because so much of their life is already in a state of flux. In addition to the physical and emotional changes is the shift from being dependent to being independent.
  • Adolescents will likely revisit their grief during developmental rites-of-passage, such as significant birthdays (the thirteenth, sixteenth, eighteenth, and twenty-first), graduating from high school or college, getting a job or promotion, getting married, and giving birth.

Possible Emotional/Behavioral Reactions

  • Adolescents may have difficulty concentrating, chronic fatigue, and physical complaints.
  • Adolescents may act out emotional distress through eating and sleeping disorders, sexual promiscuity, delinquency, and substance abuse.
  • Adolescents may internalize emotional distress, which can result in depression, suicidal thoughts, and loss of self-esteem.
  • Adolescents may feel guilty or angry about the death. It is common for adolescents to think that there was something that they could have said or done to prevent the death from occurring. They might also believe that it was something that they said or did that caused the death.
  • Adolescents may wonder “who will take care of me?” or “who will take care of the family members who are left?”
  • Adolescents may grieve over the loss of their childhood as well as the loss of a family member.
  • Adolescents may turn to peers for support and a respite from the emotional (and often physical) pain they feel.

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