By Bea Moise
Grief in the Neurodivergent
Grief and joy are both essentials of life. Children with neurodivergent brains are not exempt from the heavy emotional state of grief. How they display that grief will differ from a neurotypical child. Your natural tendency is to protect your child from things that will put them in a negative emotional state as a parent. However, sadness can’t be avoided, and your child will experience it. Writing about grief and how to help your neurodivergent child is hard for me. But my objective is to provide information whether or not that information is lighthearted or heavy; it still needs to be provided.
Laughter can be regulating.
The different stages of grief are explained from the lens of someone who is neurotypical. Atypical grief looks different because Atypical emotions look different. For example, when my daughter was a baby and would cry, my son looked perplexed. He would look at her like he was studying her and this emotional state that she was experiencing. My son has Autism, and to him, sadness from a baby was something that he needed to process. As they got older, when she would cry, he would begin to laugh, and of course, this made her cry more, and he would laugh louder. As a mom, I wanted my son to empathize that his sister was sad, but I also understood the sibling dynamic they shared. As a mental health practitioner, I took a step back and started to pay closer attention to his behavior behind the laughter and not the act of laughing itself. It became clear that he was so uncomfortable with her crying that he needed to place himself in a relaxed emotional state. He didn’t know how to respond to her emotions because he had difficulty processing his internal emotional state.
- I had to teach him that it is not socially acceptable to laugh when someone is crying or hurt because this causes further non-visible pain.
- Some children on the spectrum have difficulty grasping the idea that someone is hurt, but you can’t see it.
- Laughter was a behavior my son attached with sadness to help him regulate.
When our family dog passed away, my son displayed his grief with his removal from the environment. My entire young adult life, our dog, was with me; he was my study buddy in graduate school. Staying up with me in the late-night hours and never left my side. We traveled together and lived in different states. For 11 years, when I came home, he greeted me with surpassing enthusiasm. He was very much my first child and, without a doubt, my son’s big brother and best friend. We all have heard that a dog can’t have two masters, and I learned quickly how true that was, I was his first master, but Jacob quickly took over that role. The two of them became inseparable. They did everything together and spent all their time with one another. He was the perfect big brother, and they had the best relationship, and he was genuinely my son’s best friend. They did everything together and were always with one another. While I missed having my dog by my side, seeing how positively impactful his relationship was with my son made my heart smile. They had a secret language and shared a closeness that no one understood. When Jake was upset, he could always sense that the two would disappear together and regulate. Finally, Jake had someone who understood him and fully accepted him and loved him. I noticed how my son decided to process his grief was not through tears or crying, but he processed his grief with withdrawal. A child processing loss or sadness can choose to remove themselves from the setting, and that is precisely what my son did.
Process of Grieving
Unexpected loss can bring negative behaviors, but that’s all part of the process of grieving. Paying close attention to the change in your child’s behavior after suffering a loss can help you understand how your child is processing their grief with their behavior.
- The behavior itself may not immediately appear; it can be delayed.
- A child that lost an important person in their life can still be processing that weeks, months, or even years later.
- The trauma a child can experience from loss is what their brain is trying to cope with and manage.
My son mourned for months, and I often found him in the garage, where they frequently stayed together, but he was alone. My son does not like to be alone. He is always around us, he prefers to be where we gather, but this was not the case. Instead, he would walk around with our dog’s leash and fall asleep with it. I got to see my son grieve a loss and saw how he transitioned from having his constant best friend to now navigating alone. This was difficult for me to watch as a mother, but I had to let him process his pain and comfort when he asked or communicated to me that he wanted to be comforted.
- Allowing your child to grieve the way they can and at their own pace is the only thing you can do to learn how to help effectively.
Eventually, he started to come around with no pressure from us. The way he grieved this loss was not within my expectations; he exceeded them. It was vital for me to allow it to occur naturally, and I learned a few things along the way.
- Be comfortable with grief and sadness the same you are with joy.
- No timeframe can be deemed acceptable.
- Unconventional coping strategies are not unconventional for the uniquely wired person.
Individuals that are neurodiverse are constantly teaching us how they perceive the world and respond to it. It’s so important that we are actively listening with a non-judgmental ear.
Beatrice (Bea) Moise, M.S., BCCS., is an ADHD & Dyslexia Self-Advocate, Board-Certified Cognitive Specialist, Parenting Coach, Writer, and National Speaker. She is a respected and trusted parenting coach and consultant helping individuals who are neurodiverse. Bea has written for Autism Parenting Magazine, Charlotte Parent Magazine, Parents, PBS-Kids, PsychCentral, & The EveryMom. She is also a contributing author to Life After Lockdown & Southeast Psych’s Guide for Imperfect Parents: A Book Written by Imperfect Therapists. Bea holds a Master of Science in Mental Health Counseling. Bea and her husband have two children, Jacob, who is awesomely neurodivergent, and Abby, who is simply marvelous!
Photo Credit: Chris Marsh Photoplay Photography