The following list represents the most common losses, in a sequence most probably to occur in a child`s life:
Death of a pet
Death of a grandparent
Divorce of a child`s parents
Death of parent(s)
Source – “When children grieve” by John W James and Russell Friedman
Have you ever expected a major move like “moving to a new country” to stand on the list above?
While, the fourth event, the divorce of a child`s parents, has been another chapter in my practice for the last 5 years and I will come back to it in a different article, even though some elements could be common.
And where there is loss, there should be also grief.
All these events are out of children`s control, but how kids process or are helped to process the grief around them can make a difference. It`s not just about the impactful losses that require our attention, because kids learn how to relate to loss from every single experience and their resilience is increased after well-processed grief.
And how do you know when it`s complete? You simply feel it, there is something changed in their posture, tone of voice, attitude, level of energy, and engagement in what`s in front of them.
Kids learn from daily life how to cope further with difficult events. They learn from us and they learn with us, strengthening their ability to overcome them.
Whenever I work with adults around the subject of losing a person, a relationship, or a job, they immediately unfold many other past experiences and connect them all in a way that either supports or hinders the current grief. Sometimes we cry all the un-cried tears from the past.
This means that whenever we can observe, identify, and guide our kids’ mourning, we ease their emotional way in the future. And a major move can be one of these situations.
In many transitions, in our family, I would find my son crying for no reason. I would gently invite him towards the possibility of grieving by holding him and simply asking “What are the tears behind these tears about now?”
When kids move to a new place, they mourn after their old familiarity, but might also be excited by the novelty. One emotion doesn’t exclude the other one. Children need to be taught how to make space for all emotional experiences. Or better said, they need to be untaught emotional blockages.
“All loss is experienced at 100 percent” and children will most probably fully immerse in it.
More of that, they might look up to their parents to find a way out. So, as you already know, first, you also need to pay attention to your emotional process around this loss. And then, you can offer support to your child.
The first step is to identify their signs of grief, as they are most of the time hidden behind difficult behaviors: lack of attention, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, or a roller-coaster of emotional highs or lows. If you connect these or more behaviors with the major move that your family is about to make or has already made (even some months after), here are 5 suggestions that could guide you on the way:
1. Start by talking about yourself and your state around this transition. Tell them how you experience loss and make reference to thoughts, emotions, and body sensations, offering them the vocabulary to talk about this subject. I sometimes use metaphors for kids to make the sensations more visual like: I feel there`s an octopus around my stomach. Then, give some space to your child to join when he/she is ready.
2. Go back to all sorts of memories related to the old house/ school/ friends and create a family sharing ritual every evening or once in a week so kids can feel the permission to keep the connection with all these things. If physical reactions might accompany the stories (jumping, running, fidgeting), don`t try to stop them. Sometimes kids use more their bodies to integrate difficult emotions. You can better join them.
3. Identify together unfinished things that they might have forgotten to do back home: to thank, apologize, make emotional statements (Like saying “I love you” to a friend), to take care of something. Start by writing messages for people (or animals) and decide how they could be delivered.
For example, we couldn`t take our cat with us and my son came back many times to the idea that she might have felt abandoned. After many emotional discussions, we concluded that we should write a letter to the cat.
4. Create a collage of your old house, and extended family with pictures, drawings, and words, and encourage them to present it at school or to their new friends. Making themselves known through their history and not just through their present social abilities might give them grounds for their worthiness and relax their tendency to constantly impress others.
5. Make a plan to revisit the hometown and the family and be as realistic as you can. Don`t promise things that have little chance to happen. Create a visual calendar too, so the kids (no matter their age) have a representation in time for the re-connection.
And be patient, grief is a process that might interfere with many other aspects of your life slowing you down or stirring up unexpected emotions. But, at the end of the road, there will be more resilient children ready to approach their life transitions.