It can be hard for an adult to verbalize grief, so imagine how difficult it can be for a child. Being unable to articulate feelings is frustrating and can result in emotional outbursts, crying, biting, yelling, hitting, throwing things, fighting, talking back or challenging authority. Reassure children that it’s okay to feel angry and frustrated – while talking about and modeling healthy, appropriate emotional responses. For example, “It’s okay to feel really frustrated, but it’s not okay to yell at your family.”
Children may be angry at their mother for having cancer or dying, at their surviving parent for not paying enough attention to them, at having to take on new responsibilities at home, at doctors for not trying hard enough, or at the world for being unfair. Allow children to express their anger while setting limits and boundaries and help them find appropriate ways to get their anger out.
Examples of appropriate ways for children to release anger:
-“Squeeze the mad out” – while squeezing playdough
– Use a shaky glitter bottle in a calm-down spot
-Throw water balloons at the wall while sharing with a Nanny Angel when things make you feel frustrated.
-Draw pictures of different things that make you feel very angry and then tear the paper into pieces
Children may refuse to talk about their mother or won’t take part in activities or go to places that remind them of her. This can happen when they feel adults aren’t comfortable talking about the mom’s cancer or death themselves – they will withhold their feelings to avoid upsetting other family members. Avoidance is common, especially with teenagers. They may need their caregiver to take the lead, give them permission to express emotions and be reassured it’s healthy and okay to talk about their dead parent. Help teens find someone they are comfortable talking to, keep checking in and inviting them to talk.
Examples of how to support teenagers;
-Offer teens opportunities for them to connect with other teens who share similar experiences (Gilda’s Club Teen Grief Group or Dr. Jays Children’s Grief Centre Teen mentor program)
– Encourage teens to capture their thoughts and feelings in a journal
Children may act out death or dying scenarios by playing doctor, having a funeral with their stuffed animals, or drawing or painting things that reflect death. This type of play is not disrespectful. In fact, it’s a healthy way to process their experience and understand death. You can engage children in meaningful conversations around grief and death by using play. It’s comfortable and natural and is a good opportunity to have them express their emotions – and to model your own feelings for them. Play is a good opportunity to clarify the child’s understanding and potential misconceptions they may have.