Our section Living Through Grief explains the experience of adults following a death. This section explains the experience of a child.
Children suffer the pain of loss as intensely as adults. Yes, their world is turned upside down as well. But childhood grief is different because a child’s understanding of and reaction to death depends very much on his/her age and stage of development.
AGE TWO AND UNDER
Children under the age of two have no concept of death, just fear of abandonment. If someone close to an infant disappears, the child will usually display signs of anxiety, be clingy, cranky and upset. In order to help, they need continuity in their care with familiar faces, plenty of cuddles and comfort, and a daily routine with one main carer.
AGE TWO TO FOUR
Children in this age group do not understand the permanence of death. They watch cartoons, see characters blown up, run over, and smashed and then get up and run again. They think it is the same with people and are not able to make a clear distinction between life and death. They often associate death with deep sleep.
AGES FIVE TO NINE
Children in this age group have very active imaginations and think that the world revolves around them. They think that they can control death by outwitting it. They see it as a monster, a ghost, a skeleton, a bogeyman or an angel who comes to take people away. They often associate death with the dark or the night.
AGES NINE TO TWELVE
From about nine to twelve years onwards, children begin to understand that death is the end of life. It is irreversible and that all things die, even they will die someday.
In general, we can say that a child understands death when he or she knows:
- DEATH IS NOT TEMPORARY BUT PERMANENT
- DEATH IS NOT MAGICAL OR PERSONIFIED BUT A BIOLOGICAL PROCESS
- DEATH CANNOT BE OUTSMARTED – IT IS INEVITABLE
- DEATH IS NOT SOMETHING THAT HAPPENS TO A SELECT FEW – IT IS UNIVERSAL
TELLING THE CHILD
Most adults want to protect children from unnecessary pain and distress. However, children need information and help when a death occurs.
It is best if a parent or someone very close can break the news as soon as possible. Sometimes a grieving parent may have difficulty in telling a child about the death. If so, it may be useful to enlist the help of a trusted friend or relative. It is important to tell the truth and to use simple terms and clear age appropriate language – using words like dead, died, and dying, not “gone away” “passed away” or “lost”. Children get confused by these terms. Keep explanations short, simple and above all truthful. In the absence of clear information, children make up their own stories, which can be more frightening than reality.
Be prepared to answer many questions and repeat information several times until the news sinks in. With small children we need to make it clear what dead is. It is different to being alive; the body is no longer working, heart stops beating, no need for food or sleep, no feelings etc. Reassure the child that it is not their fault and nothing they said or thought caused the death.
THE CHILD AND THE FUNERAL
Funerals and rituals play an important part in the way we grieve. It is good for children to attend ceremonies, as they might regret not doing so at a later stage. However, it is important to offer choices and not force them to do anything they are uncomfortable doing. It is important that they are prepared and supported. Information is again the key. They need to know where the ceremony will be, what will happen, who will be there, where they will be seated, and where the deceased will be.
Talk to them about the body in the coffin and its removal to the cemetery or crematorium. Explain about people offering condolences and what to expect. It is good to include children in the ceremony or ritual in whatever way appropriate, e.g. sitting with the chief mourners, bringing a gift, saying a prayer or poem, placing flowers etc. This is an important event and it is worth making a special effort to include the child.
A CHILD’S REACTION TO DEATH
The most common reactions to death are:
One of the most frequent fears children in all the age groups have is fear of going to sleep.
Children often associate death with sleep and the dark. They can experience nightmares, night terrors, upsetting dreams that disturb their night’s rest. They may also revert to bedwetting. Sleep is a form of separation and in general other separations can become a problem too e.g. fear of going to school, being left with the babysitter or having to go somewhere unaccompanied. These fears can be overwhelming and are linked with the security of the home, parent, and family in general, being threatened. A child can feel very unprotected and vulnerable. If it is a parent that has died, a child will often fear that the second parent will also die. Children of all ages are concerned and fearful about the future and what will happen in their lives and who will take care of them.
If it is a sibling that has died, children often fear that they too will die. If the brother or sister was older, the surviving child often thinks that they will die when they reach the same age.
Children might often fear sharing their feelings or memories with others in case they might be upset themselves or upset family members.
Anger is a powerful emotion. It creates energy, which must be released. After the death of someone close, children can be angry for many reasons. These angry feelings can be directed at anyone, the deceased, parents, teachers, friends, siblings, themselves, or the medical profession. This anger can be expressed in many ways, verbal outbursts, physical fights, temper tantrums, irrational accusations, and destruction of property.
It is important for carers to recognize that anger, if not expressed, can be turned inwards resulting in withdrawal, depression, tummy pain, headaches etc.
There are many reasons why a child might feel guilty after a death, but very often, they carry this burden without anyone recognising it. They sometimes think their loved one might still be here if they had showed more love and care during their life. They may see death as a punishment for bad behaviour or think that they might have caused the death by their thoughts or actions.
Children are filled with confusion after a death. Sometimes well meaning adults say things like “Don’t cry, be brave”, “He/She is in heaven now with no more pain”. These are very misleading and confusing messages for children. If God is so good then why has He allowed this to happen?
It is very confusing to know what behaviour is acceptable. The child is in unknown territory. He wants the adults to be in control and very often the adults themselves are confused and upset at this time and are not able to give direction.
During the early days after a death, children need information, support, reassurance and to feel included. They also need permission to express a range of emotions.
Unresolved grief during childhood can lead to problems in later life. The more help a child receives the greater the likelihood of a successful adjustment. Observing how an adult grieves can play an important role in the child’s welfare.
Remember that children cannot sustain their grief for long periods. They need to do what children do best; play, have fun and enjoy life.
Grieving is hard work and uses up energy, so it is necessary to take time out, and to find a balance between sadness and anger with fun and play. Children have a great zest for life. After a death the road they travel will be different but, with the help and understanding of the adults around them children can still achieve their goals and live life to the full.