Parents understandably can feel overwhelmed with their own grief when a whānau member dies and it can be difficult to know how best to support tamariki at this time. While each whānau has its own culture and traditions that may guide and comfort them following a death in the whānau, what follows is a brief guide to some of the main ways to support tamariki.
Distress in tamariki 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.
Taitamaiti (child) development is very individual and falls along a continuum depending upon the child’s age, personality, culture, environment and life experience. Tamariki may have experienced previous losses, including the death of pets, and how parents respond to these events helps guide tamariki in how they address their own grief.
Sometimes tamariki 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 whānau may die. This is a time for lots of hugs and clear, age appropriate explanations of why their loved one died.
Tamariki and adolescents grieve just as much as adults but may show it in different ways. The death of a whānau member can have a profound effect on taitamaiti. They 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.
Taitamaiti development is very individual and falls along a continuum depending upon their age, personality, culture, environment, and life experience. How a taitamaiti experiences a bereavement will also be impacted by these individual factors and by their relationship with the person who has died.
Babies, tamariki 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 tamariki grieve is that tamariki are not able to hold intense emotion for long periods of time. They tend to grieve in bursts.
Babies, tamariki and teenagers need ongoing support after bereavement, it is not unusual for grief to resurface later, when a taitamaiti 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 whānau or friends to offer to look after tamariki following bereavement. Babies, toddlers and young tamariki 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 tamariki gradually begin to develop an understanding that death is permanent and irreversible. Some tamariki may still think that death is temporary or that the person who has died will feel things and be cold, lonely or hungry. Tamariki 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.
Tamariki 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 tamariki 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 they 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 develop 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 mātātahi 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 whānau for support. In some instances, teenagers will gravitate to their online gaming community for support and connectedness. This behaviour is a normal reaction! Having meals together 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.
Mātātahi 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.