Good Grief

Loren needed to leave the room. She walked with trepidation toward the door exiting the RIE parenting class. But then she paused and she asked me, “Should I just go?” Since she had clearly told her ten-month-old Trevor what she was doing, I encouraged her, “Yes!” Seeing his mother depart, Trevor began to cry. I approached him and spoke softly. “Your mom went out. She’s coming back. You didn’t want her to go.”

The simple acknowledgement of Trevor’s point of view calmed him almost instantly. He sniffled once or twice and then sat patiently, eyes fixed on the door, waiting for his mom to return.

This situation was repeated the following week in class. Loren told Trevor, “I’m going to the bathroom,” and somewhat tentatively walked out. Trevor cried. I went to him and said, “You didn’t want her to go. She’s coming back. It’s hard when your mom leaves and you don’t want her to. Do you want me to pick you up?” (He didn’t) This time Trevor continued to cry for a seemingly endless minute. I felt the discomfort of everyone in the class, including my own! Finally, having expressed his pain completely, he became quiet, sat still for a moment, then reached for a nearby ball. By the time Loren came back he was involved in play, but when he saw her he cried out to her and seemed to be objecting to her previous action. She sat with him and allowed him to finish his complaints. He soon became interested in his surroundings again.

No one likes to hear the sound of a crying baby. Even a few seconds of crying can be unbearable for most adults to hear. Whether we are a parent, grandparent or paid caregiver we feel that we are failing if the child in our care is upset. We want to distract a crying child, to make the child smile, and we will do almost anything in our power to put an end to the feeling that is triggering the child’s tears. But when a loved one leaves, should we not feel a sense of loss and sadness?

Let’s say we follow our natural urges when dealing with Trevor. When Trevor’s mom leaves, he cries, we rush to him. “It’s okay, it’s okay! Mommy’s coming back! Don’t cry…shhhh shhhh. Oh, look at this BALL…here, catch it, catch it! Yay!” This action could indeed put an abrupt end to Trevor’s outburst and he would stop crying. But what is the child learning? Most importantly, where did those feelings of loss go?

Fast-forward a few years. Trevor’s beloved family dog dies. His parents are devastated and Trevor’s sad cries only magnify their grief. “Trevor…Oh, it’s okay, it’s okay! Don’t cry…shhhh! It’s all right. We have to be strong. We’ll get another dog—a new puppy!”

The recent death of my mother has given me renewed interest in the grief process. The problem, as so aptly put by John W. James and Russell Friedman in The Grief Recovery Handbook, is that, “We’re taught how to acquire things, not what to do when we lose them.” Parents, friends, and even society encourage us to cover up grief rather than to deal with it productively. Don’t feel bad. Replace the loss. Be strong for others. Keep busy. These are a sampling of the spoken and unspoken suggestions we are given, starting at a young age, for dealing with grief. They require us to ignore our honest feelings, hold them in, bury them. They are well-intentioned ideas sprung from the discomfort of those around us; no one wants to see us upset. But these directions only undermine our ability to express our true feelings, steering us to the incomplete resolution of grief and loss.

Grieving people want and need to be heard not fixed. But grievers also want the approval of others, and thus feel the need to appear recovered for them. Our suppressed and unresolved feelings will then diminish our joie de vivre and sap our life energy. We may seek relief in drugs, alcohol, or other addictive behaviors. At best, we are responding unnaturally to loss and disappointment, continuing habits that threaten future happiness and a sense of well being. This is why it is vital to learn how to cope with loss in its simplest and earliest forms.

At Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) we are fortunate to study emotional health at the beginning of life, and as I pondered the origins of grief for a child, I thought of infants like Trevor experiencing the momentary absence of a loved one. A parent’s separation, even to go into the next room, is indeed the first loss most children face. If we can handle this situation carefully, perhaps we can send a child in a healthy direction as they experience future losses in life.

Another early loss children deal with occurs when a sibling is born. The older child’s relationship with his primary caregivers is altered suddenly and profoundly. No matter how sensitively the parents handle the situation, no matter how much the child appears to ‘love’ the new baby, there is grief for the preexisting situation, for what once was. The new third party causes forced reconfiguration of the child’s place in his world and tremendous loss. If a child can be trusted and encouraged to express the gamut of negative feelings he or she may be having, and if parents can use what energy they have to keep behavioral limits consistently intact while allowing for painful feelings, then the child can stay on the course of healthy emotional release.

When the children in our care are grieving a loss, no matter how insignificant the loss may seem to us, our job is to simply let them grieve. Infant expert and founder of RIE, Magda Gerber, often reminded her students, “Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose.” Trevor, and all infants, can be trusted to grieve as individuals in a unique and perfect way. Infants demonstrate the authentic expression of their feelings when given the opportunity. If we can give them the space and time to express painful feelings instead of arresting their cries, and if we can steady ourselves to work through our own discomfort, then our children can be reassured that their true responses are accepted and appropriate. Children thus can continue to experience loss naturally, learn to deal with loss capably, and know that loss is survivable. This mindful approach is vital because when we adopt it, far from failing, we are providing the highest level of care…and love.


I share more about infants, toddlers and emotional health in my new book, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting


(Photo by alicegop on Flickr)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Another beautiful, thought-provoking article. I appreciate you so much, Janet. You are a gift.

  2. I have always tried to model the acknowledgement of feelings with my son, now 2.5. When he’s upset, I let him know I hear him and what he may be upset about. It’s worked for the most part…

    However, he’s now far into the imagination arena and we’re having problems with “fake” emotions. At times, I can pinpoint an empathy cry, but other times he will pretend to be sick or hurt or upset and it’s difficult to ascertain why. Sometimes we know it’s because he wants Advil (he loves the taste) or tv (which he sees more of when sick), but other times it’s hard to know. It’s also difficult to figure out how to respond, as he does it at unexpected times, even during a time when he has our full attention (like half way through a book).

    We do have a new baby on the way, so I understand there is some anxiety present. I also know he’s more verbally advanced than kids his age and seems to both acknowledge and express his feelings better than his peers. Perhaps his imagination is just a little wild, but how should I respond?

    I want to validate that I understand his feelings, but I don’t always know what to say when the feelings are expressed so out-of-the-blue. I also want to make it clear that it’s confusing when he says he’s hurt and he’s not.


  3. Thank you for this post – very much how I feel too and he only cried for a minute (although a very long minute) and you as the adult was there to show support but not take away what he was feeling.

  4. Thank you! You affirmed what I was feeling and put words to what I have been observing both professionally in my new preschool class and persoanlly with my grand-daughter. Thank you for sharing your RIE insights and wisdom.

  5. Wonderful story and article. To be constantly reminded that no matter how small the person, babies are real people too. A fact that we tend to forget. Thank you for sharing…

  6. I understand and appreciate the importance of allowing a child’s feelings to be felt and expressed. I see the value in simple acknowledgement and being a supporting presence. And agree that it is not helpful to jump in with distractions and “fixes.” But I would like to hear more of a description of how this looks and the varying ways it can play out.

    I have tried similar responses many times over the past 2 years (with almost the exact words you shared) with my son when he has been upset about my husband leaving, or another change that he can’t control. Never has he instantly, or even after several minutes, calmed down and focused on something else. I trust my gut with my assessment that this is simply not the kind of child that he is. Rather, without changing the scene or actively distracting him, he could remain upset for nearly an hour. His persistence is unbelievable and overwhelming.

    Could you build more on the technique that you are describing above. I fear that making it sound so simple and effective is even more frustrating to parents like me, whose children do not respond as they are “supposed” to respond. I can leave us feeling as if our children are odd or problematic. 🙁

    1. Tamara, I think it’s important to understand that children don’t express feelings on our timetable. My opinion is that all feelings are perfect, exactly what the child needs to be expressing at that moment and for as long as he or she need to express it. When you say, “tried similar responses”, what I’m hearing is the word ‘tried’, which indicates to me that you are acknowledging the feelings in hope of calming your child down. Children usually sense this intention as well… They sense that rather than patiently hearing and accepting their feelings, we are trying to stop or rush them. Sometimes this can make the outbursts last even longer. If the parent feels impatient, it can be better not to talk at all, but just nod your head, wait and accept.

      Acknowledging and supporting feelings is not a “technique”, it is loving practice that fosters emotional health, but is not intended to be immediately “effective” or bring about a specific behavioral result. If you’ve been using distractions, your little guy may have stored some intense feelings, which will probably mean longer crying spells.

  7. Mary Brazil says:

    Hi, I am reading ‘Women who run with the Wolves’ by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, PhD. Your belief and way of acknowledging an infant’s grief and being with the child as they go through the pain seems to fit with Este’s belief in the wildness we all need to stay connected with. By wildness she means living ‘a natural life, one in which the criatura, creature, has innate integrity and healthy boundaries…’ with instincts intact, using and nourishing her creative self, letting go of the habits, cultures, relationships, jobs, habits which exhaust, and taking on the ones that sustain and build. ‘Good Grief’ gives me a way to acknowledge the presence and pain of grief in an infant which maintains the interests of the infant. It also gives me a way to be with that pain in the parts of me as an adult that need that sort of affirming attention. with love, Mary

  8. This is very helpful, thank you! Similar to what my 19 month old daughter has been experiencing lately. When my husband brings her home from daycare and she doesn’t find me waiting there for her, she gets very upset and cries hysterically. But when her grandmother brought her home while my husband and I were out of town, she made no fuss. We’re not sure where to start with resolving the issue.

  9. Great article!
    I have a 24 year old special needs young man ( developmentally he is about 10 )
    We have lost many people in our lives in a very short time period.
    8 in 4 years…
    Two were very traumatic…
    It is still a very hard topic for all us to talk about.
    The most troubling thing is he blames me….. Although he knows I had nothing to do with their deaths.
    He doesn’t want to talk to me and it is really taking a toll on both of us.
    I look forward to getting newsletters and reading them hoping some how I can help him through all his anger.
    I still struggle, but my son comes first.

    Thank you for taking time in reading my comment.


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