A child’s grief
Whether they show it or not, even small children feel a family member’s death.
My oldest son was 3 years old when his brother died. Although he never showed any understanding of what had happened to our family, I had to know how to deal with his questions today and for the future.

Understanding how children grieve was the first step. Quite often parents are worried that their child shows no reaction or sorrow at first.

It’s important to remember that children live in the now. They experience that a person is there, then not there. They may feel sorrow each time they realise that the person is gone. They may not even grieve at all until the accumulated effect of the person being gone is felt.

Children tend to generalise things. If a person died in his sleep, they will think that they might die in their sleep. They need to learn for themselves that sleeping won’t cause death. That they will wake up in the morning.

They ask questions again and again. You will have to repeat the answer. It’s their way of expressing their confusion and uncertainty.

As children grow older, so does their understanding of death.  They realise that a person will never come back because they are dead. Dead then takes on meaning.  Death often leads adolescents to question. For instance: What is Life? Who am I? What is death?

Feeling death at each age

With each phase of their development they will experience the death of a family member again. Every milestone reflects back on the child’s past experiences. A child that lost a close family member at a very young age, will re-experience the death again when reaching adolescence.

Death is the ultimate disruption for a child. By giving your child choices, you will help them regain some feeling of control in a very difficult situation. Let your child decide whether he/she would like to go to the hospital, view the body or attend the funeral. Giving your child possessions or photographs of the deceased may be helpful. Let them choose something, and what to do with it. Don’t be surprised if your child assumes some of the deceased’s mannerisms or symptoms for a while.

Children also grieve for the changes in the family dynamics caused by a death. By allowing your child to see the emotions felt by the rest of the family, your child will feel included. Remember to offer them the option of grieving in private if they should feel like it.

What children feel about death

Older children can express their feelings with words, but younger children just feel. Children express their feelings through play, or acting out. The following feelings are experienced by children when a death in the family occurs:

Fear – The most basic of feelings when faced with death. Children are afraid of who will die next, how will they live without this person, and most often, will I also die? Children of all ages experience fear. It can manifest in different ways like nightmares, physical symptoms, and regression.

Listen to your child’s fears and validate the feelings. Some may act younger or regress, seeking the reassurance, care and attention they received when small. Others become over achievers by trying to control everything in their power. They may even go so far as to parent the parents. Some children show outward displays of power. Imitating superheros or acting up, anger and naughty behaviour. Others may withdraw and become quiet with fear.

Guilt – There are many kinds of guilt over death including guilt from actions that caused the death, regret for actions taken (or not taken) that might have prevented the death and an unrealistic sense of responsibility for the death. By unrealistic guilt children ease their sense of fear, because they think they can prevent a death if only they try harder.

Parents try to protect their children by not explaining what is happening, but since children can feel the emotions of the situation, they tend to supply their own explanation - often blaming themselves.  Explain the facts of the death to your child and that he/she is not responsible for the death. If your child still feels unrealistically responsible, he/she may need this guilt before facing the more difficult feelings of vulnerability.

Anger – There are different kinds of anger in grieving: unresolved issues, protest against the death, antidote against fear or to counter act the vulnerability.

Sorrow – When a child feels sorrow he/she might be ready to accept the loss. Hold your child so that they can cry in safety and acceptance.

We don’t ‘get over’ an important death in our lives. We do learn to live with it, accept the loss and go on with our lives.

Source: The death of a child, compiled by Anet Dafel

How would you help your children cope with a death in the family?

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