Much about the way we grieve was taught to us in childhood. Many of our beliefs about grief were shaped in childhood. The memories we have stored at various ages were formed by a brain that was the same age as us at the time.
As children, we place ourselves at the center of the universe because it helps us survive; however, we are unable to have a worldview where we do not have significance. This means that we can easily contribute the positive or negative happenings around us to our own action or inaction. This can misplace blame and create unnecessary guilt and shame.
We also store memories at the age that the event happened. If I am seven years old when I experience a loss, I am going to tell myself a story about that loss at the maturity level of a seven year old. Memories do not seem to grow up with us unless we reevaluate them and process them as we age. There can be a 35 year old woman who still draws a 7 year old's conclusions about something because the memory was formed at age 7. We hold so many subconscious beliefs about the world and ourselves because of this--this is one reason why I am a huge advocate for revisiting our beliefs often, and asking ourselves where they come from and are they still true.
Our beliefs are also shaped by the responses of those around us. Have you ever paused to take an inventory of how the world around you (significant adults, friends, religious institutions, strangers) responded to a loss or losses in your childhood? It's quite an illuminating exercise.
If you didn't see your significant adults (usually adult family members) grieve the loss of a family member, you may not know what healthy processing looks like and you may learn that the best thing to do with loss is to avoid it.
If you were left out of the dying process (or truth about a divorce) for a family member, you will have unanswered questions. You won't know the whole story and as a child, you're likely to attempt to fill in the blanks by yourself. This leads to inaccuracies, fears, guilt and shame.
If the people at the religious institution you were part of used spiritual bypassing to avoid talking to you about your feelings (example: we can be joyful because they are in heaven), you may feel guilt or shame that you are not joyful.
If someone who was not a nice person dies and everyone around you starts talking about them like they were a saint, you can feel confused, isolated, disenfranchised, and guilty.
If religious concepts are used to placate you, you may be scared or confused. Things like "heaven", "souls", "spirit", "he's always watching over you", etc. can be too obscure to make sense of.
Here are some of the ways we can do better for grieving children:
(If you have done any inner child work, I encourage you to
use some of these strategies to parent your inner child and provide some healthy loss responses to your younger self.)
-Provide space to talk about feelings or write feelings down.
-Tell the truth at an age appropriate level about what happened or what is happening.
-Regularly check in and ask if they have any questions.
-Let them hear the facts from multiple people (a doctor, hospice nurse, etc).
-Talk about memories of the person.
-Create a ritual--release a balloon, plant a tree, paint a rock and place it in their favorite spot, etc.
Lastly, this is the way I like to get at the idea of eternal life without making it too complicated for young children.
I'll use an example of talking to my three year old nephew when his dog had died and he was asking questions after reading a book with me called "Life is like the Wind." (It is a grief book for kids that I would recommend.) It's also important to note that this conversation started because my nephew had safe space in his own home to talk about the loss. He often would bring up his dog, Rico, and cry a bit. His emotional openness was beautiful to witness.
Child: "Rico isn't here anymore." *he begins to cry*
Me: "That's true. Rico isn't here anymore and that feels sad."
(pause for a little bit and just sit to see if he says anything else)
Me: "Can I tell you something really neat about love?"
Me: "How much do you love Rico?"
Child: "This much." *spreads arms*
Me: "And now that Rico died, did your love change?"
Me: "That's right! Even though Rico died, your love stayed the same. Your love didn't die. And I know Rico loved you, and his love didn't die either. When you think about Rico, can you feel your love for him?"
Child: *nods and smiles*
Me: "Isn't that a really amazing thing? Even when someone we love dies, we can think of them and feel the same love, and that love lasts forever. So we have something that never dies. Even when we can't see someone anymore, we can feel our love for them."