When a loved one dies: Understanding grief in childrenWritten by Catherine Wilson
What's inside this article
For many families, grief doesn’t introduce itself gently. A relative or close friend dies unexpectedly, and a shock wave of grief and disbelief rocks those left behind. Family members are blindsided, bowled over, overwhelmed. Life is suddenly filled with pain and confusion.
Though dazed and bewildered, parents must quickly make some significant decisions on behalf of their children. In dismay they wonder:
What should I tell the kids about what's happened?
How can I shelter them from unnecessary hurt?
There’s little time for parents to decide what to say, and how to say it. And little time – at least initially – for parents to equip themselves and their children for their journey through grief. Not surprisingly then, parents are often perplexed by some of their children’s reactions to their loss. Distraught moms and dads find themselves facing additional stress as they worry:
Why is my child so nonchalant? Doesn't she miss Poppa at all?
How can he ask such macabre questions?
Why is she pushing my patience to the limit – especially at a time like this?
Without understanding, we can mistakenly conclude a child is indifferent to the loved one’s death, or is inconveniently misbehaving, when in fact the child is deeply troubled by grief. We miss the warning signs, because grief in children can look very different from grief in adults.
Grieving in fits and starts
As adults, we tend to grieve for a prolonged, uninterrupted period. Children, on the other hand, experience grief in short, intense bursts – but they grieve for much longer than we might expect. In his book It’s Okay to Cry, family and child therapist Dr. H. Norman Wright points out some distinctive, general characteristics of grief in children. Summarizing in bullet form, Wright explains:
- "A child is likely at first to deny death, then grieve intermittently for many years.
- A child can put grief aside easier than an adult. One question may be about her grandfather’s death; the very next question will be about her doll.
- A child often postpones her grief – or at least part of it.
- A child’s grief often lasts throughout childhood; pieces of it last into adulthood."
For adults, the "on again, off again" nature of grieving in children is hard to comprehend. But it should make us wary of concluding that a child is "through the worst of it" or is no longer grieving at all. We need to be mindful too that new losses can trigger grief over old losses, and that unresolved grief will pursue a child and cause problems well into their adult years.
Grieving at different ages
Grieving children can present a host of different behaviours that baffle parents. To make sense of some of these behaviours, it’s helpful to explore how children of various ages understand death.
"Is Grandma back from heaven now? I wanna call her and tell her to come back."
Preschoolers struggle to understand that death is permanent. In their minds, death is like going on vacation. Someone they love has left for a while, but they fully expect them to return. They also expect to have some kind of contact with the deceased, perhaps through phone calls, texts, letters or Skype.
They may react with sadness, but their predominant experience of grief is confusion and insecurity – a response to the emotional stress and upheaval they sense in their home. Outbursts of frustration or anger are typical too, as they struggle to understand why the one who died does not return.
In their confusion, youngsters may make false conclusions about causes of death, which can lead to seemingly irrational fears. For example:
- fear of germs or becoming ill, since "Grandpa died after getting sick"
- fear of hospitals, since "people die in hospitals"
- fear of travelling by car following a loved one’s death in a car accident
- fear of sleeping after overhearing that a loved one "died in their sleep"
Common euphemisms such as "called home," "asleep in the Lord" or "we lost Grandpa" can cause all kinds of misunderstandings for children at this age, as they interpret such phrases literally. (Even young children should be told the truth about what has happened in brief, clear, age-appropriate explanations.*)
Behaviours you might not anticipate:
- Frequent questions about the deceased, and a need to be told, many times over, that their loved one has died.
- Increased separation anxiety, clinginess, sleep disturbances and regression in their behaviour – perhaps forgetting potty training skills, a return to thumb sucking, or insisting on sleeping with mom and dad.
- Irrational behaviours that interrupt everyday life. Parents should gently explore whether the child has incorrectly "connected the dots" between death and certain activities, leading to irrational fears.
"Where will we keep Uncle's body after they burn his coffin?"
During the early elementary years, children tend to personify death, thinking of it as a specific entity such as "the grim reaper" who targets a small number of unfortunate people. It hasn’t yet occurred to them that everyone eventually dies. In their minds, they are immune to death themselves, or will somehow escape it.
It’s normal for children in this age group to seem preoccupied with the subject of death. They are in a "fact-finding" phase, gathering intel about this confusing topic and struggling to figure out who is "likely to die" and who isn’t. They may not yet realize that death is permanent, but they do perceive it as a separation. The prospect that they could be "separated" from mommy or daddy for some time generates anxiety about who would care for them in the interim.
Behaviours you might not anticipate:
- Questions about surviving loved ones’ age (How long until you die, Mommy?) and their health (Are you sick enough to die, like Grandma did?)
- Uncomfortable questions about burial, cremation, and what happens to the body and the soul. It’s important to give simple, truthful answers to these questions. Youngsters who are left to "fill in the blanks" for themselves often internalize all kinds of mistaken and extremely frightening ideas. A common misperception is that their loved one is going to be buried alive or burned alive.
Around the ages of four to seven, watch closely for signs of false guilt. It’s not unusual a child to conclude that they are somehow responsible for the death. For example, they might think, I was mad at my baby sister because she cried so much, and now she is dead. I made her die.
As an extension of this erroneous thinking, a child may also conclude that they deserve to be punished for causing the death, sometimes exhibiting uncharacteristically bad behaviour to elicit "the punishment they deserve." Alternatively, they may expect that exemplary behaviour on their part will somehow bring their loved one back.
"My friend's mom has died. I hope he won't have to move away."
Preteens understand that no one escapes death, including themselves, and they have begun to contemplate eternity, heaven and hell. They may need lots of reassurance as they begin to realize their own mortality. When faced with news of a death, preteens may seem fixated on details about the incident and/or the practical ramifications of the loss. They often feel pressure to appear mature or to "stay strong" for the sake of others, and may crack jokes or feign nonchalance to hide their unease.
Behaviours you might not anticipate:
- Questions that may seem a bit clinical, insensitive or inappropriate. They may ask questions like Was there a lot of blood? or Will their family have to move now? Their many practical questions are often prompted by anxiety about the future (in the light of the loss), or a need to feel "back in control" of their life.
- Fierce anger targeted at others for irrational reasons. For example, statements like, If he hadn't had to pick you up from soccer, Dad wouldn't have had the accident. Remember that underlying all that anger is a whole lot of despair or worry. (Similar behaviour may show up in other age groups as well.)
Many teens are afraid of death, but are reluctant to discuss their fear. It’s common for teens to disguise their fear or to behave recklessly to help them beat their fear or regain a sense of control. Conversely though, plenty of teens take risks because they are certain "it won’t happen to me."
Behaviours you might not anticipate:
- Sharing thoughts and emotions about a deceased loved one with friends rather than with their parents.
- Resistance to talking about their loss to "protect parents from further pain."
- Skipping school, becoming defiant and/or engaging in reckless behaviour.
- Turning to substance abuse, developing an eating disorder, or sinking into depression under the burden of grief plus other stresses of adolescence.
A note about infants
In earlier generations, it was assumed that very young children had no real understanding of loss, and were unaffected by grief over the longer term. Today we know that infants are emotionally devastated by the loss of their mother or primary caregiver, putting them at risk for far-reaching negative impacts on their social and relational development. In the event of a mother’s death or lengthy absence, someone must step into the mother’s role immediately and provide consistent, loving care for the child.
Deciphering the clues
What children can’t put into words is often expressed in their actions. We expect sadness in grieving children, but baffling behaviours may be signs that they are struggling with other weighty, unspoken emotional burdens such as fear, guilt, anger and bewilderment.
Right from the start, a child who is grieving needs someone close to them – ideally a parent – to come alongside and guide them through the long, confusing journey of grief and loss. They need someone to patiently help them talk about their feelings, answer their questions, get to the heart of troubling thoughts, and point them in a positive direction. Through conversations that will span many years, grieving kids need their parents to continually paint for them a reassuring vision of "the hope laid up for them in heaven" through Christ’s sacrifice.
* Children fare best when they are told the truth about a death, albeit in very simple terms. One exception, however, is in the case of suicide. In Children and Grief, Joey O'Connor advises, "In cases of suicide, it is more important for children to have a caring adult help them deal with their feelings of loss and grief than for them to know the particular cause of death. Teenagers are old enough to understand the facts of suicide as well as to personalize the choices and options one has when dealing with emotional pain."
For further reading:
It’s Okay to Cry, by Dr. H. Norman Wright
Children and Grief, by Joey O’Connor
For children ages 4 to 8: Someone I Love Died, by Christine Harder Tangvald
© 2014 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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