Whilst children respond very differently to the loss of a loved one, there does appear to be some identifiable patterns of behaviour largely determined by the age and developmental stage of the child. For us as parents this is useful in helping us determine the type of support we can offer our children. It can also help us come up with some strategies to help our children, and subsequently ourselves, in coming to terms with the whole grieving process.
In my last post Helping Children Grieve, I spoke about the different ways in which children respond to grief and the underlying need to have that grief acknowledged whatever the response.
Some of the responses children may have to the loss of a loved one are:
- Shutting down
- Anger or aggression
- Being mean to others
- Lack of concentration
- Physical pain…stomach aches/headaches
- Not sleeping / bad dreams
- Running away/ missing school
We can also look at the different ages of the child to help determine their understanding and processing of grief and help give ourselves some insight into what they are feeling.
Children under 5
Generally children under 5 think very literally so be careful with your choice of words. Statements like “their body just stopped working” are preferable to comments such as “they have gone to sleep”. The child of this age may very well think they are just sleeping and of course will wake up, or on the other hand they may even become afraid of themselves or other family members going to sleep for fear they too may not wake up. If you speak about “losing a loved one” their literal minds may believe that they again will be found, and “they have left us” can cause a child to become very clingy, fearing any temporary departure as a sign their parent may not return. Of course it is such a huge concept for anyone to grasp, let alone a child of this age, so there are times when they will repeatedly ask after that person, seeming to have forgotten the many conversations you may have already had regarding someones absence . They may also just continue on with their lives as if nothing has changed.
Children aged 6 – 12
Children of this age tend to have a much greater understanding of the finality of death. They are also often fully immersed in ideas of the boogey man, ghosts and the like, so it is important that we be as honest as possible in our explanations. We dont need their imaginations taking them places they don’t need to go. This will also be an age where there will be a greater array of responses depending on who the deceased person is, as well as the personality and development of the child. Some will be constantly asking questions, whilst others may shut down completely. I know that with my own boys, when dealing with grief, this was certainly the case. One would be by my side constantly, asking questions, checking that I was ok, whilst his brother would simply walk out of the room, unwilling to be part of the grieving in any overt or obvious way. That sort of response is one that we also need to be fully aware of, as it is often far more likely to come out in other unexpected ways.
By this age, our children begin to search for meaning in a person’s death and begin to think of death in a more adult way. Couple this with the normal teenage hormones and the already fluctuating emotions of adolescence, and you begin to see the problematic nature of teenage grief. This is a time when it is very important to keep the lines of communication open, and as communicating with parents is not always high on the list of priorites for teenagers, it also becomes important that they have someone else they feel they can talk to, such as another family member, friend, counsellor or other professional.
Grief is a part of life that often unexpectedly interrupts the innocent and carefree nature of childhood. It knows no boundaries and shields no person, has no structure, no time frame and knows no prejudice. When it does come crashing into our childrens lives, it is certainly helpful for a parent if they have some understanding of what is going through the minds and in the hearts of our children.
There are other more specific ways we can help our children as they battle to understand the enormity of grief, and these I will look at more closely in the third and final post on the series “Helping Children Grieve.”