The importance of play to process children's grief
“Because young children can't always vocalize their feelings, their thoughts and fears often will come out at unexpected times, like in their play. Remember that play can be the language of childhood, so remain alert to what kids may be trying to tell you through their play.” (Healthy Children, 2017)
Dr. Wolfelt in his book, “Companioning the Grieving Child” lists ten important elements of play in a child’s emotional life. These are his basic tenets of play therapy. 1. Play is the way children express and communicate 2. Play permits children to express painful and difficult emotions 3. Play is most often a child’s way to express the loss of a loved one 4. Play is essential for the bereavement counselor in establishing a therapeutic relationship with the child 5. Play helps the counselor understand the inner world of the child 6. Play increases and helps the child in their interest in working with the counselor 7. Play allows the child to utilize her imagination 8. Play is the vehicle in which the child can teach the counselor about their grief 9. Play helps energize and refresh the child 10. Play is a loving and compassionate way, one can help a grieving child
Dr. Wolfelt recommends a variety of play techniques during counseling. Among the many, he encourages use of stuffed animals, puppets, dollhouses, art, free painting, drawing, clay, music, storytelling, and books. Through these therapies, the child can communicate things they are not able to vocally or maturely do yet.
I often encourage parents and children to play “Grief Jenga” together or with me. Use coloured stickers or coloured blocks. Each colour represents a prompt. For example, green might be a happy memory, purple represents something you don’t understand, red might be something you miss. As you pull out the block, you answer the prompt. This is a powerful exercise because it gets both players to verbalize things that might not be at the forefront. It demonstrates that both players are processing their grief. If a child is grieving, then a parent is most often grieving too. Adults are their model. It is important that they see us cry.
In conclusion, children need to learn to grieve just as they learn to ride a bicycle or tie a shoelace. Young minds can become overwhelmed by grief so they “step out of it”. Moving in and out of grief is a way children cope. When they move out of grief it is often through playing with friends, laughing or physical activity.