Helping Children – Understand the loss of a loved one
Parents are very protective of their children particularly at a young age. As such when they believe circumstances warrant it, they will remove them or keep them from getting involved in certain occurrences or events.
When death occurs, funeral directors are often asked by those who have young children and are mourning the loss of a loved one, whether they should bring them to a funeral home or allow them to attend the funeral or burial services. In responding to this question it helps to consider the emotions children feel when facing a loss.
Development studies and observations made in natural and clinical settings indicate that children are aware of death at an early age. A child does not begin with realization that death is inevitable and final but does quickly grasp the implication of separation and loss.
Grief According to Age
Birth to 18 months: Babies cannot ask questions however; they do experience loss, for example, of a parent. They sense a change in their environment or schedule and often become fussy and develop sleep problems. During this time it is important to offer extra comfort and soothing.
Toddlers (19 months to 3 years): A toddler’s concept of death is hard to grasp. In their favorite cartoon the character dies in one episode and returns in the next. They often confuse death with sleeping. Toddlers know something has occurred in their lives, but they have no concept of death and expect the loved one to come back.
Young Children (3-10 years): Young children begin to have some concept of death and realize its finality. They ask a lot of questions which are often repeated. They may also feel insecure and unsafe in their usual environment. For example, a child who loses her mother may wonder who will braid her hair each morning, take her to school or prepare her lunch. This is how the child may express her loss. The questions children ask are not selfish. Children need to be reassured that they will be taken care of.
Children will react to a loss as well as adults. Some reactions may appear at the time of death while others may come at the time of crisis. Others may be delayed, since so often the child represses his or her emotions and attempts to appear calm in the face of tragedy. There is not a single procedure or formula that will fit all children, either at the time of death or during the period that follows.
There are so many variables. How close was the child to the deceased? What were the circumstances surrounding the death? What is the child’s concept of death? How do significant adults react? What is the offspring’s physical and emotional health? What has been the child’s prior experience with loss? There are differences in grief reactions because of unique conditions, feelings and attitudes. Like adults, children, too, must be understood and valued. The following are some of the ways children may react to the loss of a loved one.
Denial: “I don’t believe it. It didn’t happen.” “It’s just a dream. Daddy will come back. I know he will.”
Bodily Distress: “I have a tightness in my throat.” “I can’t breath.” “I have no appetite.” ” I have no strength.” “I am exhausted.” “I can’t do my homework.” “I can’t sleep.” “I had a nightmare.” The anxiety has expressed itself in physical and emotional symptoms.
Hostile Reactions to the Deceased: “How could Daddy do this to me?” “Didn’t he care enough about me to stay alive?” “Why did he leave me?” The child feels deserted, abandoned, and angry.
Hostile Reactions to Others: “It’s the doctor’s fault. He gave him the wrong medicine.” Or “Mother didn’t take proper care of him, that’s why he died.” The resentment is projected outward in order to relieve guilt by making someone else responsible for his death.
Replacement: “Grandma, do you love me, really love me?” The child seeks the affections of others as a substitute for the parent who has died, which is quite normal.
Assumption of Mannerisms of the Deceased: “Do I look like daddy?” The son attempts to take one of the characteristic traits of the father by walking and talking like him.
Anxiety: “I feel like daddy when he died. I have a pain in my chest.” The child becomes preoccupied with the physical symptoms that terminated the life of the father. He transfers the symptoms to himself in a process of identification.
Panic: “Who will take care of me now?” “Suppose something happens to Mommy?” “Who will bring money home for food and toys?” This state of confusion needs supportive love. “My health is fine. I will take care of you.”
Guilt: Children are likely to feel guilty, since in their experience, bad things happen when they are naughty. They also harbor all kinds of fantasies that they are responsible for the death. It is necessary to help the child express his or her own fantasies and fears.
There are many ways parents and other adults may help children understand their loss and assist them through their grief.
Activity Book: Use age appropriate materials to help children understand what has happened. Many funeral homes have activity or colouring books that help explain in a childlike manner what to expect when visiting funeral homes and attending the funeral and burial services.
Activities: Young children find expressions through play and drawing. Encourage them to remember someone they have lost through activity. Some funeral homes have included play areas for children within their facilities. The rooms are brightly painted with wall murals of rainbows, animals or other playtime settings and contain toy boxes full of toys for young boys and girls. There are also activity tables and chairs for colouring and reading and a TV/VCR for watching cartoons or videos.
Questions: Children grieve in small doses often asking many questions over and over. Answer them honestly and openly and do not confuse them with soft terminology. For example, telling the child that the dead person is “just sleeping or God came and took him” can create enormous fear and anxiety. The child may be afraid to sleep or fear he may be taken by God. It’s okay to use the word dead and to look for ways to illustrate the point.
Attendance at Funeral: Allow the child to attend the funeral. By being included the child will feel acknowledged and supported by the family. It will also give the child the opportunity to grieve. Allowing the child to feel the full power of a sudden loss will help increase their coping ability for the rest of that child’s life. On the other hand, a child who has decided against attending a funeral should not be forced to do so against his or her wishes.
Daily Routine: The child’s environment and daily routine should not change. It is not the time to change schools or find a new babysitter.
Communications: Encourage children to discuss their innermost fantasies, fears and feelings. They need to talk, not to be talked to. Children should be given every opportunity to reminisce about the person who died, and if desired, express anger as well as affection.
Be Open-minded: Do not close the door to doubt, questioning and difference of opinion. Respect the child’s own personality, for in the long run it is the child who must find his or her own answers.
Loving Gesture: Like adults, children too should be encouraged to do something special for their loved one. Placing a favorite toy in grandpa’s casket or a handwritten letter to him is a loving gesture, which will be fondly remembered, and a source of comfort for the child.