By the time I was eight, my first brother had died and my second was diagnosed with the same fatal condition. My great-grandmother had died, but I wasn’t allowed at the funeral. Instead, I peeked through the heating ducts to watch what was going on. My dog was given away with little explanation and my second brother was placed in a children’s home where he could receive the medical attention he needed. I never saw him again. My loss experience was more extreme than many and remained a dominant theme throughout my childhood.
The usual way children learn about loss and death begins at an early age in a benign sort of way. A toy gets broken and can’t be repaired. A favorite stuffed animal or blanket is taken away and put in a safe place. As time goes on, a pet may die, such as a bird, a fish or a hamster. The pet is lovingly wrapped in a cloth, placed in a box and may be buried in the back yard. The child begins to understand that death is final.
A friend from school moves away. Letters are written and cards are sent. As time goes on, new friendships are made. Old ones become fond memories. Later, a long time family dog or cat dies. Again, that death is handled with compassion and tenderness. The child feels sadness and misses their treasured pet.
A distant relative dies and once again loss is explained. At some point in a child’s life, a precious grandparent or aunt or uncle dies. This loss is experienced more intimately, the absence more noticeable. As each loss takes place a new lesson is learned, a new understanding of loss is gained and a new sensitivity is developed.
Other children have devastating loss thrust upon them at a very early age, which is out of the natural order of life. They may watch a classmate die of a lengthy illness, Mommy may be killed by a drunk driver, a sister might be murdered.
Whatever situation you find yourself in at this moment, it is vitally important that you are aware of what your children need from you and how to help them face the losses in their lives. We may overlook children’s emotional needs because we think they are too young to understand and that they don’t grieve. Most counselors believe that if a child is old enough to love, they are old enough to grieve.
As I recall my childhood, I realize now that I had feelings of loss over my brothers’ illness and resultant death when I was seven years old. My sister, who was four years younger and had a totally different personality than me, remembers little of the trauma surrounding my brothers’ problems. As parents, we need to realize that different children respond differently to loss and that children move in and out of the grieving process. A child can be sad and tearful one minute and tossing the football in the backyard or playing with her dolls the next. Children are more prone to compartmentalize their grief than adults.
Explain Death Clearly and Truthfully
Children need honest, open communication about death. Keep in mind, what may be comforting words to an adult may terrify a child. Don’t say, “Uncle Bob passed away.” Or “Grandmother just went to sleep.” A child doesn’t know what the term “passed away” means. The child needs to hear that Uncle Bob died. Using the words die, death and dead may seem harsh, but are much more helpful for children. Children are literal thinkers. If you use the words, “went to sleep” the child may think the person will eventually wake up, or the child may be fearful of falling asleep because they know the person who died never woke up.
AGE MAKES A DIFFERENCE
While infants and toddlers will not understand what death is, they will sense the distress of the parents, the emotional atmosphere at home and a disruption in regular schedules. Try to keep the baby’s usual sleeping and eating schedule whenever possible. Your baby will need extra holding, and touching. It is important to stay close physically to provide security and stability.
The preschool child may have a beginning concept of death, however, they often think it is reversible or not permanent. They may ask when the dead person is coming back. The child might also feel they did something that caused the death. Reassure your child that their thoughts, feelings, wishes or actions did not cause the death. Children ask a lot of questions and are quite open about what has happened. This age child moves from sadness to play quite quickly and may even seem unphased by the loss.
Children in their early elementary years usually understand that death is final and will want more details about how the person died. The child may feel vulnerable and worry if other loved ones will die. The child needs reassurance that he will not be left alone, but there will always be people to love and care for him. This age child may want to hear stories about their loved one and to recount their loss experience often.
Pre-teens and Teens
Emotions and feelings become a major focus for pre-teens and teens when facing a loss. Children in this age group often feel anger and guilt, but don’t really understand why or where it is coming from. In an effort to avoid the sadness or not add more trouble to their parents they often hide their feelings. They may prefer and seek solitude, withdrawing from their friends and support systems. When the opportunity arises, encourage your child to talk about their feelings, thoughts and memories.
Helping Children with Their Grief
Prepare the children for what will come. The more open you can be about what is ahead, the less uncomfortable your children will be. Explain what the funeral will be like, what they will see and what feelings they may experience. I tell children and adults alike that we hurt so much because we love so much. I feel it is very important to honor the sadness and hurt as a tribute to how much we love. If we didn’t care, it wouldn’t hurt. Each moment of sadness and every teardrop shed represents our love for that person. We must never be ashamed of that love.
Selected by Joni and Friends International Disability Center as one of their Recommended Books on Grief
© 2008-2021 Lauren Littauer Briggs. All rights reserved.
Website Design by Karen R. Power