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Grief—What about the Kids?

From the series Are You Ready? Again?

In my previous blog post we explored the importance of grieving well. The focus there was on adults, but what about children and grief? What impact does it have on a child who suddenly needs to leave the country that has been home? For some kids, China has been the only home they have ever known. So let’s consider the impact grief has on children and how best to help them grieve well.

Too many times I have heard people say: “Kids are flexible.” “They forget so easily.” “Children live in the present.” Yes, there is some truth in these statements, but it is much more complicated than this.  Many different factors play a role in the grieving process of a child including: age, circumstances, whether the situation was foreseen or sudden with no warning, the parents’ reactions, and so on.

It’s been observed that when children recall and relate what happened, they focus on sharing about their parents. What they really take with them from the situation are the feelings their parents communicated to them. One child kept talking about how angry dad was; a girl kept coming back to how worried mom was saying, “she was really sad and cried a lot.” They may not understand or remember many details of the situation, but they remember the signals their parents were sending, often without being aware of it. Kids are experts in reading their parents. They have their antennas out and can read stress and emotions well, something parents should remind themselves of so they communicate safety in the midst of crisis to their children.

Age makes a difference in the way children grieve. They may not know why they are angry or what they are feeling. Adults need to encourage them to share what they are thinking and feeling. To do this, we must assure them, and keep reassuring them, that it is safe to share their thoughts. We will not be angry with them. We will not stop loving them. We will not leave them.

Young children can grieve deeply, even though they may not appear to be doing so. Very young children may regress and start wetting the bed again, or slip back into baby talk. Children who are a little older may get angry, cry or throw tantrums only to be found playing as if nothing had happened a short time later. Playing can be a defense mechanism to prevent a child from becoming overwhelmed. Nightmares are also a very normal reaction.

Sometimes children who go through difficult experiences with significant consequences think that, “it is my fault that this happened.” It may take years before a child dares to say it out loud but rather keeps it secret creating guilt. I heard of a girl who thought it was her fault that her dad got in trouble with the police in China and they had to leave. Her worry was not based on reality or anything she had done. Rather, since she didn’t know why her dad had gotten into trouble, she worried that she had said or done something stupid.

If the situation was very serious, or understood by the child to be very serious, and the losses resulting from the transition were significant, a child may experience depression. One of the counseling centers I have contact with has been very busy working with families and children who had to leave China suddenly.

Working with the whole family is important. For younger children play therapy is one way of getting them to share what they have been through. Getting them to share and making them feel safe again are important tools needed for children to move forward and develop socially and emotionally. Having an outsider who is especially trained to work with children is sometimes crucial.  If you contact us, we would be happy send you a list of professionals who are trained to do counseling with children.

Please note that trauma can have a serious effect on babies and toddlers. Many people wrongly believe that babies do not notice or remember traumatic events. In fact, anything that affects older children and adults in a family can also affect a baby. Trauma can seriously disrupt important aspects of child development that occur before the age of three

One of my own children experienced trauma in China when he was very young, only one-and-a-half-years old. Since his language had not developed yet to express and tell us what had happened, the trauma remained with him for many years. We needed to help him and give him tools to deal with situations which recalled the same feelings he had had as a toddler. We learned to recognize and manage his signs of stress and understand cues indicating what was going on for him.

After a family had been back in their home country for almost two years, the mother said about her son:

He talks less and less about China. It comes in seasons. There are also triggers which make him refer to life in China. When life is challenging here it seems like he misses and idealizes China more. In some ways he still refers to China as the norm “in China we . . .”

Another mom whose family has also been away from China for over a year shared how the coronavirus lockdown, the isolation, and doing homeschooling had their kids mention China more often.

In her book, Third Culture Kids: A Gift to Care For, Ulrika Ernvik writes:

In the garden you only see the green leaves of the carrot. To find the carrot we have to dig deeper. Behaviors are like green leaves of the carrot—visible, but not what we are searching for. But if we start to dig we might find what we are looking for: the reason behind the behaviors—which are about the important need the child has. To find them we need to dig deeper and ask ourselves: WHY?  Why is the child acting like this?” (p. 171)

So what are some things we can do to help children grieve well?

Here’s what two families found helpful.

Looking back we are so pleased for the advice to be generous with our kids and allow them to pack “whatever” they wanted. Some things were shipped and I recalled the smell of our old city as we opened the boxes. Our youngest had put in some small rocks and bits of his favorite sticks. For him to be able to show them to the cousins and new classmates as something from his old home, helped him. They were almost like a “blankie’ for little kids—something to hold on to while grieving.

When we moved to our new location after a year back home, there was no problem for him to leave them behind. As we arrived in the new place he was ready and excited. As a parent I think it was good for him to have a longer time where he was allowed to hold on to little things like that. We never had the attitude that it was “just a stick.”

We have a TCK camp every summer in our home country—for our kids that made all the difference. Coming back from China and being thrown into the culture of our home country was not easy, but going to camp, where they had been before really made a difference for them. They met with other TCKs and didn’t need to explain. At the camp there also were older TCKs (young adults) to talk with and the TCK expert, herself a TCK and trained in counseling, led sessions about grief and belonging. They were also able to have individual sessions to share and pray together. This helped them to be ready for the move to another country in Asia.

Whatever is done needs to be age appropriate; here are a few more suggestions.

  • Help them make memories, before leaving if possible
  • Recreate the memories and help them remember afterwards
  • Help them express their feelings in a variety of ways, for example, drawing, painting, making collages together.
  • Help them name their losses.
  • Help them grieve hidden losses.
  • Encourage them to play out the difficult situation using Legos, dinosaurs, dolls, etc.
  • Encourage them to retell and maybe even recreate the situation
  • CRY with them. Some of my most beautiful memories are from crying together with our children. I remember crawling up next to our oldest son, when he was five and I found him crying and together we cried until the pillow was all wet from our tears. I assured him that mommy was also very, very sad.
  • Share funny and special memories. Write them as brief notes and keep them in a special jar where you can pick one and recall the good times you were blessed with.
  • Help them stay in contact with their friends from China and their favorite “aunt” or “uncle” from the field. Remember that a child may be much closer to the “aunts and uncles” on the field, than to their blood relatives. Set up play times or tea parties on Zoom, WhatsApp, or FaceTime. Maybe play that special game, read a story, or sing together over the internet.
  • Introduce them to the “Magic Truck” There are always things that can’t be brought along when moving from place to place. Since many of these children had to leave China unexpectedly, and some very hastily, many things were left behind. And not only things, but also pets, people, places, sounds, and so on. The Magic Truck is a place where a child can put all the things she wished she could have brought with her. Have the child draw a big truck and ask him to put in, one by one, the things (or people, pets, places, etc.) that he wished he would have brought. (Ernvik, p. 192)
  • Draw a timeline. When we returned to our passport country we made a timeline on a huge piece of paper where we all could add in special events or situations. All five of us in our family had our own special color and we wrote down important events in our lives from the day we moved to China. We included things like: “started Chinese nursery,” “XXX moved,” “we had a break in,” and so on. We also added in important steps for us adults—language studies, work, and ministry. As a family we also talked about and added in important situations in the country such as the death of Deng Xiaoping, the Olympics, and bus bombs.  Since our children moved to China as very young children, one was even a newborn, and we left more than ten years later, their whole lives ended up on the timeline.

My final and most important advice is: Be there to love and listen, but also give your child space to not talk about it all the time. Allow your child to just be and feel safe.

For more on the impact on children when families have to leave unexpectedly, see “The Impact of Leaving on the Kids.”

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Image credit: 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash.


Lisa (pseudonym) has lived in Asia since 1995, serving China and working in the area of member care. She moved with her family to be a light among the people God had put on their hearts. After more than ten years the dream suddenly came to a halt and they …View Full Bio

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