Following a very sudden death of a close friend, I found myself unable to concentrate, filled with dark thoughts and randomly breaking down into tears throughout the day. I'm 28 and have the coping strategies of an adult - what must it be like for children? Most young children are aware of death, even if they don’t understand it. Death is a common theme in cartoons and television, and some of a child’s friends may have already lost a loved one. But experiencing grief first-hand is a different and often confusing process for kids. As a parent or teacher, you can’t protect a child from the pain of loss, but you can help them feel safe. By allowing and encouraging them to express their feelings, you can help them build healthy coping skills that will serve them well in the future.
Developmental Phases in Understanding Death
It is important to recognize that all children are unique in their understanding of death and dying. This understanding depends on their developmental level, cognitive skills, personality characteristics, religious or spiritual beliefs, teachings by parents and significant others, input from the media, and previous experiences with death. Nonetheless, there are some general considerations that will be helpful in understanding how children and adolescents experience and deal with death.
Infants and Toddlers
The youngest children may perceive that adults are sad, but have no real understanding of the meaning or significance of death.
Young children may deny death as a formal event and may see death as reversible. They may
interpret death as a separation, not a permanent condition. Preschool and even early elementary children may link certain events and magical thinking with the causes of death
Early Primary/Elementary School
Children at this age (approximately 5-9) start to comprehend the finality of death. They begin to understand that certain circumstances may result in death. They can see that, if large planes
crash into buildings, people in the planes and buildings will be killed. In case of war images, young children may not be able to differentiate between what they see on television, and what might happen in their own neighbourhood.
Late Primary/Elementary School
Children at this level have the cognitive understanding to comprehend death as a final event
that results in the cessation of all bodily functions. They may not fully grasp the abstract concepts discussed by adults or on the TV news but are likely to be guided in their thinking by a concrete understanding of justice. They may experience a variety of feelings and emotions, and their expressions
Most teens will fully grasp the meaning of death in circumstances such as an automobile
accident, illness and even global disasters. They may seek out friends and family for comfort or they may withdraw to deal with their grief. Teens (as well as some younger children) with a history of depression, suicidal behaviour and chemical dependency are at particular risk for prolonged
and serious grief reactions.
Kids Grieve and Express Grief Differently
After losing a loved on, a child may go from crying one minute to playing the next. Their changeable moods do not mean that they aren’t sad or that they have finished grieving; children cope differently than adults, and playing can be a defence mechanism to prevent a child from becoming overwhelmed.
The range of reactions that children display in response to the death of significant others may include:
Common in younger children, you may see behaviours often seen in babies or toddlers. These may include needing to be rocked or held, difficulty separating from parents or significant others, needing to sleep in parent’s bed or an apparent difficulty completing tasks well within the child’s ability level.
Especially for unexpected deaths, children can go into a state of shock. At times, they may display an apparent lack of feelings, which serve to help the child detach from the pain of the moment. Even if they appear 'unbothered' or detached, this does not mean that they are not feeling things very intensely. This is especially true for children who are autistic.
Explosive Behaviours and Acting Out
These behaviours are very common and can last a long time. These reflect the child’s internal feelings of anger, terror, frustration and helplessness. Acting out may reflect insecurity and a way to seek control over a situation for which they have little or no control. Remember, any behaviour is an expression of feeling and a form of communication - they are not doing it to be intentionally disruptive or naughty.
Asking Questions Over and Over
This is not because they do not understand the facts, but rather because the information is so hard to believe or accept. Repeated questions can help listeners determine if the child is
responding to misinformation or the real trauma of the event.
How You Can Support Children Through Grief
After losing a loved one, children are going to need a lot more support from us as parents or teachers. Here are some things you can do to support children through the grieving process;
Encourage Children to Express Emotions
It’s good for kids to express whatever emotions they are feeling. There are many good children’s books about death, and reading these books together can be a great way to start a conversation with your child. Since many children aren’t able to express their emotions through words, other helpful outlets include drawing pictures, building a scrapbook, looking at photo albums, or telling stories.
Be Developmentally Appropriate
As mentioned above, children understand and process death and grief differently depending on their age and, importantly, their developmental age. For children with SEND, this is particularly important to remember as you may have a child who is 10 years of age but developmentally, they may be closer to a toddler. It is hard to know how a child will react to death, or even if they can grasp the concept. Don’t volunteer too much information, as this may be overwhelming. Instead, try to answer their questions. Very young children often don’t realize that death is permanent, and they may think that a dead loved one will come back if they do their chores and eat their vegetables.
Older, school-age children understand the permanence of death, but they may still have many questions. Do your best to answer honestly and clearly. It’s okay if you can’t answer everything; being available to a child is what matters.
When discussing death, never use euphemisms. Kids are extremely literal, especially those who are autistic, and hearing that a loved one “went to sleep” can be scary. Besides making a child afraid of bedtime, euphemisms interfere with their opportunity to develop healthy coping skills that they will need in the future.
Stick to Routines
Children feel a great sense of calm when they are in a routine, so try to stick to as normal a routine as possible. Although it is important to grieve over the death of a loved one, it is also important for your child to understand that life does go on.
When to Seek Additional Help
If you notice that a child seems unusually upset and unable to cope with grief and their loss, they may have something called adjustment disorder. Adjustment disorder is a serious and distressing condition that some children develop after experiencing a painful or disruptive event. It is a good idea to speak with parents or a healthcare/mental health professional if you feel that your child isn’t recovering from a loss in a healthy way.