As adults, we recognize how much death is a part of life and for most of us it is a reminder to live each day to the fullest. We try not to think about death on a daily basis and focus on the here and now, however, for some this is not a luxury they are afforded. Due to either their own illness, or that of a loved one, they are constantly reminded of it. After the passing of their loved one they are left to pick up the pieces and find a way to keep on living.
Parents who lose a loved one have an even more difficult job due to not only having to care for their own mental health and grief, but that of their child(ren). Play Therapists are trained to help with this burden. Children do not grieve in the same way as adults and Play Therapy can allow a child to process their grief in a safe space. Many adults may know the Five Stages of Grief as including denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. They may also view it as being a linear process requiring completion of each step before acceptance can be reached. However, children frequently experience the Five Stages of Grief in a manner that is not linear and instead may go back and forth or jump stages.
Depending on the child’s age, different theories can be utilized to help them process whichever stage they are experiencing. Child-Centered Play Therapy allows for the child to self-direct the session and the therapist provides a non-judgmental, empathetic experience. The child is allowed to be in their emotions fully and the therapist meets them where they are in the moment. Adlerian Play Therapy allows the therapist to be more directive in the session with teaching coping skills directly vs Child Centered where the child is the expert of teaching themselves the coping skills. For older children and adolescents, Creative Expressive therapies are especially helpful with allowing them open up about their grief that involves more than talk therapy. With a skilled Play Therapist all of these theories can be utilized over the course of treatment depending on the need. The length of treatment is unknown and based purely on the individual child’s ability to cope with and process their loss.
Some children also need time to feel ready to speak with a therapist or participate in play therapy, however, if a child is exhibiting significant behavioral issues that could be leading to depression parents should act immediately.
Parents and caregivers should be observant of the following behaviors:
Lack of Interest in Areas the Child Used to Find Enjoyment
Fixation on Death and Dying
These behaviors are warning signs of the anxiety and depression that a child may be experiencing due to the death of a loved one. While some children have more obvious behavioral issues because they are externalizing their feelings other children experience their emotions by internalizing them. Those who internalize their grief will typically isolate themselves and/or begin to have a lack of interest in areas they used to enjoy. Anxiety and depression are common when experiencing grief, however, children can display these emotions differently than adults.