Losing a Loved One: Helping Children Grieve
You may not be grieving for your loved one alone. You may have a small child or children who are grieving, and along with your own grief, you need to be supportive and understanding of their reactions to the death of their special someone. This post is for parents of children who are grieving.
Children, like adults, experience grief in many different ways and each child has his or her own pace of recovery. It is impossible to predict how a child will respond to losing a loved one; however there are certain reactions that are common to children as well as adults. For example, whilst an adult may express anger verbally, a child may do so through drawing pictures.
Children also grieve irregularly – one minute they are crying loudly and the next they are happy outside playing with friends. Understanding the concept of loss depends on the age of the child and below is a table of how children grieve at different ages. Keep in mind that other factors play a part in a child’s grieving, for example, intelligence, family environment and previous experience with death.
The Young Infant (Age 0-3)
Thoughts: Children at this age have little or no understanding of death and tend to think that it is temporary and that the person who has died will eventually return.
Feelings: Young infants can sense that something is wrong as they experience the grief of their primary caretaker. Responses may include feelings of being left behind, fear and insecurity.
Reactions: Anger, crying, searching, lack of appetite and finally quiet resignation is the way in which a child will grieve.
Ways to help cope: What we do is far more important that what we say to a child this age. Generally, a grieving infant needs large doses of tender, loving care holding, cuddling and stroking.
The Older Infant (Age 3-5)
Thoughts: The older infant has a limited understanding of death depending on the information that is provided.
Feelings: Because the preschooler has not yet developed a clear understanding of the permanence of death, their feelings may include confusion, anger and aggression.
Reactions: Regression in behaviours such as sleeping and toilet training may occur together with reverting to baby behaviour and clinging.
Ways to help cope: When talking about death to the preschooler, it should be explained simply to avoid confusion. Role playing with animals, toys and puppets can help the child gain an understanding of the loss.
Age 5 – 8
Thoughts: Slightly older children have a greater understanding of death, recognising that it is irreversible.
Feelings: They can find it difficult to understand their emotional reactions such as feelings of guilt or fear. If the child has lost a parent, he/she can feel anger towards the surviving parent or even the parent who deserted them.
Reactions: Behavioural problems such as underperformance at school and disruptions in friendships may occur as a result of the loss.
Ways to help cope: Children’s artwork can speak louder than words and free expression can be encouraged by taking this approach.
Age 8 – 12
Thoughts: Children aged from around 8 years and older have a more realistic understanding about death and the implications of permanent separation.
Feelings: They tend to react with similar emotions to adults such as extreme sadness and anger.
Reactions: The death of a loved one at this age is quite traumatic. Some of their questions may indicate fears of their own death.
Ways to help cope: Children of this age not only need support and comfort but can also be a source of comfort for others. Opportunities to be helpful to others during the crisis can actually help children deal with their own feelings.
Thoughts: To the emotionally healthy teenager, death is foreign and is something they do not want to think about.
Feelings: When losing an important relationship, the adolescent’s self centred values may cause them great distress, anxiety and fear. Adolescents have the capacity for empathy with other family members, so their pain is doubled.
Reactions: Sometimes self destructive behaviour such as alcohol or drug abuse is experimented with as a means of deferring the pain attached to the loss.
Ways to help cope: Caretakers of a grieving adolescent should not be discouraged if their teenager reaches out to someone other than family. It is also not uncommon for him/her to take on the role of parent to younger siblings.