No child is too young to notice when an important person is no longer there. Adults often try to shield a child from pain by telling them little or nothing about what has happened.
On their own, many children are not able to understand the reality of death and the feelings that they have. They may be confused and feel rejected or abandoned at a time when they most need comforting, understanding and security. Adults, struggling to cope with their own reactions to a death, may feel totally helpless in dealing with a grieving child.
Often, children express their grief physically, rather than verbally in ways that adults do not expect. They tend to grieve in spurts and go through periods seemingly unaffected. It can be likened to jumping in and out of the puddles of grief. They need support when they are in the puddle and they need to be reassured that it is ok to have fun as well.
Children and young people may respond to loss in any of several ways, including:
A way of coping with something that is either not understood or accepted. The child may fantasise about the dead person, talk about him or her in the present tense or continue to ask for the person despite being told that he or she is never coming back.
This may be a result of needing to find a reason for the death. Some children feel they caused the death in some way, or feel guilty for being alive. They may wish that the other parent had died and this causes lots of difficult feelings.
This may be directed at peers who have not had a loss, at the deceased person for leaving, or at other family members. Children often express their anger through very challenging behaviour.
Children may idealise the dead person and begin to imitate his or her mannerisms.
Children may fear that other people who are close to them may die or be scared that they may themselves die. They may feel insecure and worry about who will take care of them.
They may lose their appetite, have nightmares and seem to be tired or lethargic much of the time, complain about headaches or upset stomachs. Some children may complain of having the same symptoms shown by the dead person during the final stage of their illness.
You will probably recognise that the above responses are very much the same as those felt by adults in similar situations, but with the added complication of a less clear understanding of the process of death. Remember also that children do not always have the words to express their feelings.
Various other Issues will affect the way a child grieves:
Each age of child has differing perceptions of death and, although the borders between ages are by no means clear cut, the following is an indication of understanding and possible reaction:
Before the age of 5
Children usually see death as temporary or as something that happened to ‘objects’. Their main response may be a feeling of being left behind, fear and insecurity. They may express these feelings by asking repeated questions about the missing person. Other responses may include clinging, wetting, tantrums, aggressive behaviour, withdrawal or becoming attached to something belonging to the dead person. Children of this age will have little fear of death unless they have had experience of bereavement.
From age 5 to 8
Slightly older children will have a greater understanding of death, recognising that it is irreversible. However, they may find it difficult to understand their emotional reactions to the loss such as feelings of guilt or fear. They may tend to fantasise about death and ask many questions that adults may find inappropriate and upsetting. Children may have night terrors and can ‘play out’ death and dying. Children in this age group are still too young to understand or deal with their feelings without help and support.
From age 7 to 9
Children usually respond to the death of someone close to them by crying, denying what has happened, becoming aggressive, hostile or apathetic. They will be curious about what has happened to the dead person and will ask questions to satisfy this curiosity, often with anxiety about other people dying. The understanding of death in this age range is usually quite realistic. They are beginning to realise that death will affect them to.
From 10 to adolescence
Children are often puzzled by their feelings, finding it difficult to express what they feel is happening to them and hearing conflicting signals from adults as to whether they should be reacting or acting as a child or as an adult. As a result, they may deal with death by withdrawing, becoming silent and sullen and having little communication with adults. They may not wish to attend a funeral and may become aggressive and uncooperative. They will have a clearer understanding of the finality of death.
Adolescents, those aged 12 and above, have a more adult understanding of death, although they may have difficulty in recognising the personal implications of mortality. They may express opinions on ethical issues of life and death such as abortion or euthanasia. Challenging or risk-taking behaviour may become evident as can eating disorders, depression, they may experiment with drugs and drink, they may become easily stressed, regress or the take on parenting role.
These reactions and emotions may be similar in circumstances following the loss of something that holds a great deal of value, splitting up with a good friend or boyfriend or girlfriend after an argument.
Sometimes children can experience the same events with differing emotions and feelings.
When working with children in matters of bereavement, it is appropriate to remember that boys, more than girls, refrain from talking about a death and they have difficulty in showing their feelings.
Boys also have less ability to express their feelings in writing and are likely to have less support than girls through peers and at home.
It is important to be aware of each child’s culture or personal beliefs when dealing with issues of loss.
As an example, it is never safe to make assumptions or judgements when discussing whether a child was present at the funeral. In some cultures it is not expected that children under a certain age or girls of any age be allowed to attend the service.
Each culture and religion has its own specific beliefs and ceremonies or rituals and it is sensible to establish what these may be as quickly as possible in the support process in order to ensure that incorrect assumptions do not adversely affect such support.