The cliché that there is nothing more certain than death and taxes – and taxes can be cheated – is a morbid but true fact of life. We all will face death, and yet despite the inevitability, there is a deeply ingrained psychological fear that makes talking about this morbid topic a taboo. Yet, death is ubiquitous, unavoidable, and a facet of literally living. Conversations about death and dying can be uncomfortable, but also necessary at certain points in our lives.
For younger children, the conversation about death may be about pets, aging loved ones, or the heartbreak of a classmate or young parent faced with accident or illness. It’s important to be honest, but also age appropriate in these communications. Children may not understand the permanence of death, and may ask repetitive questions, or need reassurance. This can be difficult to cope with when dealing with your own grief and loss! It’s also important to remember that children are still children, and they may vacillate between playful and appearing perfectly fine, to tears and behavioral outbursts that seem disconnected to the loss. Providing children with the time and opportunity to ask questions, and offering reassurance is important. Many children display a regression in skills acquired, such as toilet training. They may also begin to exhibit separation anxiety, and fear that other loved ones may die, too.
Culturally, rituals around death and dying help those left behind grieve. This includes funerals and services, and should be offered as an option. While mandatory attendance at a funeral can be traumatic for children and teens, so too is the assumption that kids are “too young,” or won’t understand, and may deprive a child of their need for closure. Help prepare a child in advance for what to expect, particularly if they are young and have not yet experienced death before. A child may wish to honor their loved one in a different way, such as writing a letter, or releasing a lantern with a wish. Regardless of religious beliefs, helping a child remember that their loved one lives on in their hearts can help. Making a memory or scrap book of the loved one may also be a concrete way of saying goodbye.
For all ages, it is important to remember that there is not a “right” or “wrong” way to grieve. Yet for some teens and adults, risky choices such as unsafe substance use, or unsafe relationships, may be an outlet to “numb” the pain associated with loss. Monitoring these risky behaviors, and providing safe space to explore feelings and process the grief, is helpful. It also helps to remind ourselves that grief is a process, and we may never be fully “over” the loss. While the intensity may lessen over time, the pain of loss may be reopened time and time again across our own life span.
Thankfully, the mental health industry is increasing in our understanding of grief, loss, and sadness. The recent update to the DSM-5 (the diagnostic manual for mental health professionals) has clarified that, while bereavement symptoms can appear like major depression, the context of the symptoms must be accounted for. This does not mean that a person who has a clinical diagnosis of depression can’t also experience grief, and this also does not mean that a person who experiences grief must resolve their sadness by a certain time in order to not receive a depression label. It simply means that we understand that grief is a major stressor and life event – and we also understand that depression, and grief, are not mutually exclusive.
We know that death, and grieving, is a frightening but inevitable fact of life. If you need help with loss, grieving, and adjustment, contact us. We can help!