Parents understandably can feel overwhelmed with their own grief when a family member dies and it can be difficult to know how best to support children at this time. While each family has its own culture and traditions that may guide and comfort them following a death in the family, what follows is a brief guide to some of the main ways to support children.
Distress in children is often seen in their behaviour rather than what they are able to say. Be understanding that changes in behaviour may be an expression of grief.
Child development is very individual and falls along a continuum depending upon the child’s age, personality, culture, environment and life experience. Children may have experienced previous losses, including the death of pets, and how parents respond to these events helps guide children in how they address their own grief.
Sometimes children may not seem to be directly affected by a death, but their behaviour may indicate otherwise; they may become more emotional and clingy, they may develop worries and fear that someone else in the family may die. This is a time for lots of hugs and clear, age appropriate explanations of why their loved one died.
Children and adolescents grieve just as much as adults but may show it in different ways. The death of a family member can have a profound effect on children. Children have less of an ability to verbalise how they are feeling so their distress is often seen in their behaviour rather than what they are able to say.
Child development is very individual and falls along a continuum depending upon the child’s age, personality, culture, environment, and life experience. How a child experiences a bereavement will also be impacted by these individual factors and by their relationship with the person who has died.
Babies, children and teenagers may at times appear to be unconcerned, unaffected or unaware of a death as they continue to play or carry on with their day. A fundamental difference between the manner in which adults and children grieve is that children are not able to hold intense emotion for long periods of time. They tend to grieve in bursts.
Babies, Children and teenagers need ongoing support after bereavement, it is not unusual for grief to resurface later, when a child matures and goes through another developmental stage.
The following reactions are common and are likely to settle over time when a child’s response to the death is acknowledged, they are supported to understand their feelings, are given age appropriate information and reassurance. It is important that normal boundaries are kept in place.
Every child’s grief is unique. There is no magic formula but things that help include:
Babies and toddlers don’t understand the concept of death. They can respond to a change in their environment and will experience feelings of loss, abandonment and insecurity if a significant person is missing. They don’t have language to express how they are feeling and will pick up on the distress that is around them.
It is common for extended family or friends to offer to look after children following bereavement. Babies, toddlers and young children benefit from staying as close as possible to their usual caregivers.
Pre-schoolers find it hard to understand that death is permanent. They often develop an interest in the death of birds and animals and are developing an understanding that being dead is different from being alive. This age group has rich ‘magical thinking’ where they may think the person can become alive again or that they did something to make the person die.
Pre-schoolers have a very literal understanding and think in a very concrete manner. It is important to use real words such as ‘dead’ as euphemisms such as ‘lost’ or ‘passed away’ may cause misunderstanding and confusion.
School aged children gradually begin to develop an understanding that death is permanent and irreversible. Some children may still think that death is temporary or that the person who has died will feel things and be cold, lonely or hungry. Children increasingly become aware that death is an inevitable part of life and can become anxious about their own health and safety. They may be concerned that someone else they love may die.
Children may be interested in what has happened to the person after they have died, where they are now and may ask blunt questions about what has happened to the person’s body.
It is important to answer questions honestly and provide enough information so that children are not left with gaps in their knowledge. The risk of insufficient information is that a child may fill this space with inaccurate information.
Children’s imagination and ‘magical thinking’ can mean a child may feel that their thoughts, words or actions caused a death, they may feel guilty.
Continuing to answer questions and explain death to this age group is important. Their understanding will be developed over time and they may need to revisit what has happened and ask the same questions many times to make sense of their experience.
Ongoing reassurance, love and affection is helpful.
Adolescents understand that death is part of life.
Developmentally they are in a time of big physical and emotional changes and may flip back and forth between younger age group type reaction and more adult reactions. Grief can impact that developmental task of moving from dependence to independence, where young people move from familial ties to increasing reliance on their peers.
It can be difficult to ask for support while asserting independence.
Teenagers may want to be with friends more than family for support. In some instances, teenagers will gravitate to their online gaming community for support and connectedness. This behaviour is a normal reaction! Having meal times at the family table may give you opportunities to “check in” with the grieving teen.
Keep in mind they may find the intensity of emotion overwhelming and may not be able to express what they are feeling.
Young people don’t like to feel different and a bereaved teenager may feel socially isolated. They may want to feel and look as though they are coping while trying to manage or deny difficult internal emotions and feelings. To escape this level of discomfort some teens may use risk taking behaviour.
It’s important to remember that grief takes as long as it takes. Navigating though grief is not only a personal process but a family one as well. Create meaningful events and anniversaries with your family that will help children continue to process and make sense of their loss as they continue to grow.