Children and Loss
Children of all ages are undoubtedly affected by any significant loss, and often very deeply, because their coping mechanisms are just developing. Everyone is usually rightly concerned about how death or a life-threatening situation will affect children.
Any child old enough to love is old enough to grieve. It is very important to acknowledge that children do grieve, and should be encouraged to do so. Allowing them to express their grief helps make sense of overwhelming fears and anxieties that may be evoked by a death or other significant loss. Death is not the only significant loss that causes grief. If parents separate or divorce; if a significant person become ill, or struggles with a debilitating disease; moving away and having to start a new school and make new friends; grandparents living at a distance or in another country. There are many “life losses” that affect children and cause grief and anxiety. Having their grief validated gives children the assurance that they are not alone in their experience, and that they will be OK.
It is very important to acknowledge that children do grieve, and should be encouraged to do so. Allowing them to express their grief helps make sense of overwhelming fears and anxieties that may be evoked by a death or other significant loss. Having their grief validated gives children the assurance that they are not alone in their experience, and that they will be OK.
But we need to ask ourselves the following question to begin to understand the complexity of how the situation affects this child, and how we can offer support:
What does THIS loss mean to THIS child, at THIS time in his/her life?
When tragedy strikes, there is often anxiety about the impact upon, and the reactions of the children directly or indirectly involved. Many instinctively shield children from pain and sorrow. We try to keep them from upsetting situations. We leave them at home when we go to visit a sick or dying relative in hospital. We send them to a friend’s house when we go to a funeral. We talk about death in hushed voices, rationalizing that “this would be too much for them” and “they are too young to understand.” In fact they understand all too well.
Children, from a very young age, know when something is wrong. They hear what is said, and are sensitive to disruptions in the household. They feel the distress of their parents and others, and are deeply affected by it. And when they discern that something is a secret that is being kept from them, they arrive at unjustified conclusions. When we do not include children in the situation, or explain what is happening, we leave them to imagine the worst, and cope with their feelings alone. And sometimes, what they imagine is worse than reality.
The experience and expression of children may be different from adults, but it will be no less painful or severe. Most children fear abandonment more than death. Children who feel isolated tend to fall back on regressive behaviors. Angry outbursts, irritability, changes in eating or sleeping patterns are common signs that a child is suffering. Because children believe in magic, they may believe that if they wish hard enough, the person will come back. Their anger is because they believe they were unable to reverse the effects of death.
Some may even believe they are responsible for death somehow, and struggle with guilt. Because children cannot differentiate between a wish and a deed, they may recall a moment when they wished a sibling would disappear, and rationalize that this wish has come true and they are to blame. Others may feel the person has “gone away” because they were bad, or unlovable.
- Watch your child at play. Observe how they act with dolls or toys, as this is often a clue to their feelings. Listen to the stories they make up in word or play. You can help by sharing stories and memories of the good times, and positive alternatives to any bad things they may remember.
- Often it may appear a child is “unaffected” by the news of a loss. This is because it takes a child a long time to “internalize” bad news. The hard questions may come up many months later. There are perhaps four central questions children express:
- Did I cause this person’s death?
- Does this mean I will die too?
- Are you (parents) going to die too?
- If you die, who will take care of me?
- Children tend to mourn little by little, bit by bit. They cannot do it in chunks. Sometimes they experience grief in other ways than sadness and tears. So a child may be upset one minute, and playing happily the next. They might act as if the death has not occurred, because the thought of the loss is overwhelming. They need to be allowed to process their grief in child-sized segments.
Children will need reassurance that they are not responsible. Some may mistakenly feel this has happened because they were naughty, or did not keep quiet as they were instructed. Remember, the child feels that death is controllable, so will make the false assumption that if they had done more, or behaved better, that this would not have happened. Most children need assurance of love, acceptance and feelings of security, and these needs are heightened in a time of crisis or loss.
The good news is, children can cope with most situations, provided they are given appropriate choices, are prepared for what to expect, given opportunity to talk it through before and after, and are receive loving reassurances and support. Sharing the reality of what is happening allows children to understand, cope with, and integrate the experience of loss into their lives.