Child Experiences Grief and Loss after Divorce or Separation

It’s normal for children to grieve after the separation or divorce of their parents. Children need and usually love both parents. They usually want both of them at home with them every night. Even when parents are living in an intact marriage, children complain about missing a parent who works nights or who travels a lot and so on. It’s just the way it is – children want their parents at home. People understand the truth of this when it comes to the death of a parent – everyone knows that a child will go through tremendous grief and trauma. However, many underestimate the trauma of a child’s loss when it comes to marital separation and divorce, thinking that since the parent is still alive, the child hasn’t really lost that much. In fact, many parents actually abandon their children completely following the dissolution of the marriage. But even those who are consistently present through the mechanism of the visitation schedule and agreed-upon living arrangements, are now absent for some portion of the child’s life, whether that is 30% of the time or 50% per cent of the time. Even having telephone access during separations from a parent is not sufficient to make up for the absence of the physical presence of the parent so much of the time. The child has really lost something and so the child really grieves. How can parents help kids through their grief and loss?

Your Relief, Your Grief and Your Child
It is important to separate your own feelings and needs from your child’s feelings and needs. After separation or divorce, you, yourself, might be traumatized and/or actively going through crisis, grief and loss. However, what you have lost and what your child has lost are two separate things and require two separate interventions. You may need your own support – both personal and professional. The child needs YOUR support (and possibly professional support as well), as if you have no investment in the issue. In other words, the child needs you to be there for him as if you yourself have not been affected by the separation or divorce. There can be no “we” in the discussion (as in, “we’re all hurting”). The child needs to be free to be a child, to worry only about his own pain and NOT have to even know about your pain, let alone have any role in comforting YOU! The child needs you to help him through his pain as if you were a dispassionate professional counselor. Any sadness you might feel for the child’s plight or any guilt you may be bearing for inflicting this on him, must be put aside so that you can be there for him. Any desire you have for the child to cheer up, toughen up or move on, must also be put aside. You only have one task  – that is to listen emphatically and say YES (nodding your head, saying “yes” slowly and softly) to the child’s grief. Some children can actually express their grief in words. In that case, a conversation might sound something like this:

  • child: “I’m sad that Daddy isn’t here at home with us.
  • you: “You’re sad that Daddy isn’t here now…. Yes.”
  • child: “I don’t like going to his house. I just want him to come home.”
  • you: “You don’t want to go there; you just want him here….. Yes.”
  • child: “You shouldn’t have got divorced.”
  • you: “You feel that we shouldn’t have gotten divorce….. Yes.”

By allowing your child to just state his feelings and by saying “Yes” to each feeling, you help the child to release his pain, one sentence at a time.

Of course, there are many children who do not TALK about their grief and loss at all. Some specifically refuse to discuss the changes the family has gone through. Instead, they show their grief by looking sad, showing a lack of interest in things that used to interest them, developing problems like over-eating or under-eating, having excessive temper tantrums, getting into trouble at school or at home and so on. Parents can help the non-verbal child by talking about their own feelings (and thereby modeling the process of connecting to and expressing one’s own feelings). For instance, the parent can just muse out loud, “You know, I sometimes really miss the way our family used to be when we were all together” or “It’s going to take some time to get used to the new house.” The parent should NOT express intense grief, sadness or anger at the situation or at the ex-spouse. The parent can also name the child’s feelings for him, making educated guesses about how he might feel in various circumstances. For instance, when the family is having its first holiday or birthday celebration without the other parent at the table, the parent can say, “It’s a bit strange today without Mom/Dad being here with us, isn’t it?” Or, when the other parent isn’t around at bedtime anymore, the parent can say, “I bet you miss Mom/Dad tucking you in every night.” These statements are not meant to upset the child – they are meant to help the child have words for experiences that he is no doubt going through. When the parent can talk about it casually and easily, it demonstrates for the child that no experience is too painful to be translated into language. Moreover, putting emotions into words helps to lighten the effect of the emotion by “containing” it. Until a feeling has words to it, it can be a big, vague, monstrous, dark thing. When it is put into words, it shrinks to the size of the word. For instance, the word “devastating” is smaller than the feeling of devastation intself. Therefore, by giving words to the child’s experience, the parent is both teaching and healing the child at the same time.

When children’s physical health, mental health, social or academic performance is suffering and self-help tools are not remediating the situation, it’s time to call in a mental health professional. Giving the child this help early on can prevent more serious behavioral and emotional problems later.

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