Children And Death
Children and Grief
Children can only conceive of death according to their stage of development. The children’s emotional understanding is not based entirely on their age. Therefore, children who have come into contact with the death of a loved one may have a greater understanding of the concept of death than other children their age.
As Children Grieve
Children’s interpretation of death will depend on the amount of knowledge they have acquired emotionally, physically, and intellectually. Children must learn that death is a final and last act, instead of one that can be reversed or avoided. Children’s ability to understand death happens through their experiences and their social interactions with others; therefore, children express grief differently. Thus, their actions and reactions are closely related to their developmental stage and understanding.
Very young children often view death as temporary. This belief is reinforced through television, especially through cartoon characters that die then comes back to life. As children get older they begin to understand the concept of death, but they think it will never happen to them or the people they know. Death should be explained to a child with an example that can be understood. A good example would be a flower and how long it last, then continue in accordance with the child’s ability to comprehend, since children response to death is different than adults. Therefore, a child sometimes believes that the deceased family member is still alive; however, long-term denial of death and grief can surface as psychological problems at a later time.
A child frightened to attend a funeral should not be forced to, but participation on some small scale is healthy. The act of saying a prayer or saying a soft good bye at the gravesite will help the child accept the death. After the child learns to accept the death, they can begin to come to grips with their feelings of grief.
Children may not be able to verbalize their feelings because they lack the skills necessary to do so. The child may be overwhelmed because of the death and act out their feelings, because they are in a state of crisis. Greenstone and Leirton in their book Elements of Crisis Interaction, 1993 gave these typical reactions to death by children ages one through five: (pg. 47)
• Thumb- sucking
• Fear of dark or animals
• Clinging to parents
• Night terrors
• Loss of bladder control, bowel control, or constipation
• Speech difficulties
• Loss of or increase in appetite
• Fear of being left alone
The article went on to say "Abandonment is a major fear in this age group. Children who have lost family members (or even pets or toys) due to the circumstances either related or unrelated to the crisis will need special reassurance."
Children pass through four major emotions: fears, anger, quilt, and sadness. Reactions to death are as individual as the child’s nature. However, according to http://www.kidssource.com/sids/grief.html "The best way to deal with children is honestly. Talk to the child in a language that they can understand. As a parent remember to listen to the children and try to understand what the child is saying and, just as importantly, what the child may not be saying. Children need to feel that death is an open subject and that they can express their thoughts or questions as they arise." P3
Dishonest answers are only confusing to young children. If a young child is told that a loved one will sleep in piece forever the young child may develop a fear of going to bed. If a child is told that someone is dead because they were sick, they may assume that when they are sick they will die also.
In an article titled Grief in Children, there were the following danger signs to look for:
• An extended period of depression in which the child loses interest in daily activities and events.
• Inability to sleep, loss of appetite, or prolonged fear of being alone.
• Acting younger then their age for an extended period of time.
• Excessively imitating the dead person or repeated statements of wanting to join the dead person.
• Withdrawal from friends.
• Sharp drop in school performance or refusal to attend school.
These signs may be warning indicators that professional help is needed. Experts say that six months is a normal amount of time in the grief process. After this amount of time then the child should begin to resume a normal routine.
According to kidsource.com here are some common reactions to death:
Shock: the child may not believe the death really happened and will act as though it did not. This is usually because the thought of death is too overwhelming."
• Physical Symptoms. "The child may have various complaints such as headache or stomach - ache, and may fear that he to will die."
• Anger. "The child may be mostly concerned with their own needs, being angry with the person who died because they feel they have been left "all alone", or that God did not make the person well!"
• Sadness. "The child may show a decrease in activity - being "to quiet."
• Guilt. "The child may think that he caused the death by having been angry with the person who died, or feel responsible for not having been "better" in some way."
• Anxiety and Fear. "The child may wonder who will take care of him now, or fear that some other person they love will die. He may cling to his parents or ask other people who play an important role in his life if they love them."
• Regression. "The child may revert to behavior they have previously out grown."
All of these reactions are part of the normal expressions of grief.
One of the more difficult tasks that must be dealt with following the death of someone in the child’s life is discussing and explaining the death to the child. This can be very distressful to the adult as well.
Ways to help children deal with a death situation according to kidsource.con:
"The child’s first concern may be "Who will take care of me now?"
• "Maintain usual routines as much as possible.
• Show affection and assure the child that those who love him still do and that they will take care of him.
The child will probably have many questions and my need to ask them again and again.
• Encourage the child to ask questions and give them honest, simple answers that can be understood. Repeated questions require patience and continued expression of caring.
• Answers should be based on the needs the child seems to be expressing, not necessarily on the exact words used.
The child will not know appropriate behavior for the situation.
• Encourage the child to talk about his feelings and share with them how you feel. You are a model for how one expresses feelings. It is helpful to cry when necessary. It is not helpful if you tell them how they should or should not feel.
• Allow the child to express his caring for you. Loving is giving and taking.
The child may fear that he also may die, or that he some how caused the death.
• Reassure the child about the cause of the death and explain that any thought he may have had about the person who died did not cause the death.
• Reassure them that this do not mean that someone else they love will die soon.
The child may wish to be part of the family rituals.
Explain these to them and include them in deciding how they will participate. Remember that they should be prepared beforehand, told what to expect, and have a supporting adult with them. Do not force the child to do anything they don’t feel comfortable doing.
The child may show regressive behavior.
• A common reaction to stress is to revert to earlier stage of development. Support the child in this and keep in mind that these regressions are temporary."
Children can reach a greater understanding of loss with the help of adults. Adults can prepare young children by helping them understand the death of a pet or a fictional character on television. Adults must always remember that the best way to protect the child is to be patient, truthful, consistent, and loving.
"Children and Grief" online 8/24/99. Available http://www.counsling forlosss.com/c//c/article9.htm. p2
James Greenstone and Sharon Leviton. "Elements of Crisis Intervention" Brooks/ Cole Publishing, 1993.
The Grief of Children", online 8/24/99.
Available http://www.kidssource.com/sids/grief.html. pp. 1- 4