The Grief of Children
SourceBy Susan Woolsey, Associate Director
Maryland SIDS Information and Counseling Project
SIDS Foundation of Washington
ForumsRaising our Kids
Related ArticlesDevelopmental Considerations Concerning Children's Grief
Back To Sleep - What You Can Do to Reduce the Risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
Commonly Asked Questions About SIDS: A Doctor's Response
One of the most difficult tasks following the death of a loved one is discussing and explaining the death with the children in the family. This task is even more distressing when the parents are in the midst of their own grief.
Because many adults have problems dealing with death, they assume that children cannot cope with it. They may try to protect children by leaving them out of the discussions and rituals associated with death. Thus, children may feel anxious, bewildered, and alone. They may be left on their own to seek answers to their questions at a time when they most need the help and reassurance of those around them.
All children will be affected in some way by a death in the family. Above all, children who are too young for explanations need love from the significant people in their lives to maintain their own security. Young children may not verbalize their feelings about a death in the family. Holding back their feelings because they are so overwhelming, children may appear to be unaffected. It is more common for them to express their feelings through behavior and play. Regardless of this ability or inability to express themselves, children do grieve, often very deeply.
Some Common Expressions Of Children's Grief
Experts have determined that those in grief pass through four major emotions: fear, anger, guilt, and sadness. It should be remembered that everyone who is touched by a death experiences these emotions to some degree - grandparents, friends, physicians, nurses, and children. Each adult's and child's reactions to death are individual in nature. However, some common reactions are:
It is important to remember that all of the reactions outlined above are normal expressions of grief in children. In the grief process, time is an important factor. Experts have said that six months after a significant death in a child's life, normal routine should be resuming. If the child's reaction seems to be prolonged, seeking professional advice of those who are familiar with the child (e.g., teachers, pediatricians, clergy) may be helpful.
Explanations That May Not Help
Outlined below are explanations that adults may give a child, hoping to explain why a person they loved has died. Unfortunately, simple but dishonest answers can only serve to increase the fear and uncertainty that the child is feeling. Children tend to be very literal - if an adult says that "Grandpa died because he was old and tired," the child may wonder when he too will be too old; he certainly gets tired - what is tired enough to die?
Ways To Help Children
As in all situations, the best way to deal with children is honestly. Talk to the child in a language that he can understand. Remember to listen to the child and try to understand what the child is saying and, just as importantly, what he's not saving. Children need to feel that death is an open subject and that they can express their thoughts or questions as they arise. Below are just a few ways adults can help children face the death of someone close to them:
The child's first concern may be, "Who will take care of me now?"
The child will probably have many questions and may need to ask them again and again.
The child will not know appropriate behavior for the situation.
The child may fear that he also may die, or that he somehow caused the death.
The child may wish to be a part of the family rituals.
The child may show regressive behavior.
Adults can help prepare a child to deal with future losses of those who are significant by helping the child handle smaller losses through sharing their feelings when a pet dies or when death is discussed in a story or on television.
In helping children understand and cope with death, remember four key concepts: be loving, be accepting, be truthful, and be consistent.
Reprinted by the SIDS Foundation of Washington with permission of The Circle, inc. Reprinted here with permission from the SIDS Foundation of Washington.