Are the Developmental Needs of Children in America Adequately Addressed during the Grief Process?

By Schoen, Alexis Ann; Burgoyne, Megan et al. | Journal of Instructional Psychology, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Are the Developmental Needs of Children in America Adequately Addressed during the Grief Process?


Schoen, Alexis Ann, Burgoyne, Megan, Schoen, Sharon Faith, Journal of Instructional Psychology


There is no debate about the natural, normal, unique, and lifelong process of the grief of the death of a loved one. The loss is an intensely individualized experience. Yet, given an understanding of human growth and development, some general predictions about the concept of death and the grief reaction can be made based upon common patterns of cognitive and emotional maturity at various stages of childhood. These general considerations can enhance the quality and nature of supports that are provided to the grieving child or youth. Such improvements are sorely needed in the American culture, where children are typically protected from discussions of death and overlooked in the mourning and grieving process.

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This is Megan's story ... It was Saturday, November 6, 1993. As a family, we had played a game of SPLAT at the card table. My two brothers, David and Patrick, then nine and five years old respectively, were reluctant to go to bed. David went into my parents' room to "borrow their toothpaste" as a stalling tactic. At 7:00 A.M., Dad had to be at the hospital to start his workday. He curtly told David to get to bed. David and I talked for a little while and played more card games. This was unusual. Most of the time, we were at each other's throats. I went to my room to work on a Social Studies project for a while. Then, I went back to David's room. He offered me the handmade construction paper turtle he had just designed. It was held together with surgical tape. We hugged, told each other good night, and said "I love you." David died in his sleep that night.

I remember that people responded to Patrick and me in ways that attempted to protect us from hurting. I also remember the range of emotions that seemed to overwhelm me. What if his death was a punishment for all the times that we fought over the good spot by the television, the front seat in the car, the selection of the Christmas tree, and who was responsible for starting the fights? I felt that it was my responsibility to take care of the family, as the oldest child. Yet, it was extremely difficult to wake up each of the next mornings, knowing that David wasn't going to return. When I got to school, I felt different from the rest of my eighth grade peers. There were some outlets at school to turn to (e.g., friends, counselors), but I was not able to express my feelings of loss. Megan's story is true. Megan's story is painful. Megan's story describes many of the conflicts that an adolescent experiences when confronted with a sudden, unexpected death.

Adults often shield the younger family members by limiting discussions about death. By avoiding a shared social response to the loss, adolescents like Megan may be denied the right to mourn. This can isolate the teen and delay the recovery process. It ultimately does not protect them from hurting.

Megan describes a range of emotions in response to David's death. Adolescence is a developmental period that is filled with change, particularly as teenagers struggle with issues of independence versus dependence. It is normal to expect conflict in determining how to deal with grief (i.e., as a child or as an adult). Anger, depression, withdrawal, acting out, noncompliance, frustration, and confusion are typical grief responses (Metzgar, 2002).

Frequently, the misinterpretation of David's death as a punishment for Megan's sibling interactions with him is reported (Rando, 1984; Wolfelt, 1991). Intense relationships are formed between siblings. These relationships encompass competition, rivalry, love, anger, arguing, and friendship. Adolescents may focus upon the negative interactions and feel a sense of guilt and responsibility for the death in some way.

Megan also relays a feeling of responsibility for her family. This might be the result of social expectations that are placed on teenagers to be grown-ups and demonstrate strength for the other younger sibling.

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