Adults process grief with the understanding that death is permanent. They call on the comfort of their own beliefs and experiences to cope. Unfortunately, children do not have this luxury. Not only are they ill-equipped developmentally to process and understand death, they also have limited experience with a persistent negative emotional state.
After the death of a parent or sibling, children need specific direction to help them recover as best as they possibly can.
Without guidance and help from those around them, losing a loved one can have enduring psychological effects on children. Death can be the springboard from which other problems form. Here’s what you need to know about guiding children through the confused world of bereavement.
The Need for the Truth
Adults can make the mistake of assuming that children know what death is and what it means. However, the brain develops slowly over the course of several years, and young children will have difficulty grasping the abstract concept of dying.
For this reason, it’s very important that adults emphasize complete honesty when explaining what has happened without relying on euphemisms. For example, it’s common to say someone has passed away or that they’ve been lost. Children will not understand these terms. They will feel confused about where their loved one has actually gone, and some children will think the deceased will come back.
Because understanding the event is essential to beginning the true process of mourning, adults should take the time to:
- Use simple, clear phrases. Do not shy away from saying words like, “dead,” “died,” or “buried.”
- Explain what death is. Don’t be tempted to say things that adults normally find comforting, like “Daddy is in Heaven now.” Heaven is an abstract concept that children cannot fully grasp. Explain that when someone dies, they cannot wake up again. They will not come back. It seems harsh, but understanding the reality of what occurred is essential to healthy grieving.
- Answer questions. Children may ask questions about where their parent or other family member is and why they haven’t come home. Answer honestly, and remember to keep your answers consistent, as it is common for children to ask these questions several times.
If the loss is not sudden, you can also take the time to be honest with a child when a family member is terminally ill. Explain what the illness is or what injuries the person sustained. Visit the hospital. Talk about how sometimes diseases can make people so sick they do not get better.
Again it seems harsh to adults not to “soften the blow” with indirect language. However, dealing with death indirectly will only increase a child’s confusion and fear, leading to greater psychological trouble in the future. Just remember to use a reassuring tone as you explain the situation, and comfort your child to help them through it.
After children grasp the reality of the death to the best they are able, they move naturally into a state of bereavement, where they long for their lost loved one. It’s normal for a child to experience extreme anger, depression, decreased interest, and even defensiveness.
At first, you might see children:
- Playacting death and funeral services with toys. This is an outward attempt to normalize the event.
- Asking questions over and over. Children will already “know” the answer, but asking repeatedly is a mechanism to check if the answer will remain the same. Common questions include, “Did I make this happen?” and, in the case of a dead parent, “Who will be my mommy or daddy now?”
- Speaking to strangers about the loss in matter-of-fact tones. Adult find this behavior inappropriate, but children do it to help them gauge how they should feel based on the reactions from others. Speaking to many is a child’s method of taking a poll about grief.
Children will spend more time than adults on figuring out what life and death mean to them—it may take months before the loss is absorbed. Even though adults will expect children to feel very sad, with the pain lessening over time, the early stages of grief are more a search for clarity than dealing with the reality of loss.
After the reality of death has the time to sink in, children might be fearful that others who are close to them will die. They might also struggle with:
- Increased aggression. Many times, children are not equipped to handle a feeling of persistent sadness and longing. Acting out in an aggressive way is a method of escape.
- Changes in eating, social, and bathroom habits. Young children might regress developmentally, and school-aged children may withdraw from their peers.
- Identity problems. Some children will actually assume the identity of the person who has gone. For example, if a child has lost an older sibling, they may start dressing and acting like the deceased. This can be therapeutic in small doses, but if done to excess, it can lead to psychological trouble.
- Over-attachment to adults, especially to parents. Children will become needier and clingier to the people who represent emotional security.
All of the grieving processes are life-changing for children, and they have far reaching effects. It’s best for grieving children to have access to professional assessment and help, especially because other family members are also struggling with their own feelings of loss.
For more information on counseling options for children and families who have suffered loss, contact us at NeuroHealth Arlington Height. We can help families work through the difficult stages of grieving.