Significant loss can diminish a child's fundamental sense of security and trust. This trust may need to be rebuilt and this takes time. Grieving children will often look for reassurance.
At a glance
- Children learn from adult behaviour and seek permission from adults.
- Children often express their feelings through behaviour.
- It is important to acknowledge changes that have happened in the family as a result of loss.
- Grieving children still need to experience being children.
- When talking to children about death, it is important to avoid using euphemisms such as 'sleeping forever' or 'left us...' as these phrases can cause confusion.
- Meet with your child's teacher and let them know what's happened.
Children do not always have the words to talk about what they are experiencing. They often express feelings of 'sad, bad, mad' through their behaviour. Usually they are not being naughty, rather, they are saying, “I am missing daddy, I am scared, I don't understand what is going on.”
It is important to check out these feelings and to talk about them. Remember that children learn from adult behaviour and seek permission from adults. This kind of communication can help to strengthen family bonds and reduce individual isolation.
“If my daddy has died that means mummy can die too and who will look after me?” Sometimes children become, 'little mum' or 'little dad' and assume adult responsibilities. It is important to acknowledge changes that have happened in the family as a result of the loss and to work out appropriate tasks. Grieving children still need to experience being children.
Play is natural to children. It helps children regain a sense of control and mastery. It is a safe way of giving expression to what is happening 'within'. It is a way to express all kinds of feelings. Play offers adults the opportunity to talk with children about safe ways of expressing 'sad, mad and bad' feelings.
Children's concepts of death
Children tend to say things directly, simply and clearly and their stage of development influences their understanding of death. There are three concepts that are important for children to grasp:
- Death is irreversible and final; it is not 'a trip' from which they will return.
- Death brings about non-functionality – life and body functions stop, the person is not asleep.
- Death is inevitable – everyone will die some time.
Most children understand these concepts by the age of nine years. Studies indicate that children's understanding of death is related to age, verbal ability and cognitive development. Children who are bereaved before the age of seven are likely to come to a partial understanding of death.
It is important to avoid using euphemisms such as 'sleeping forever' or 'left us...' as these phrases cause confusion for children.
Common grief responses in children
Being more dependent on parents, clingy, not wanting to go to school, feeling sick more often, wanting to sleep with parents, needing extra help with tasks normally done alone, withdrawal. There may be themes of death in their stories, drawings or play.
Shortened concentration span, confusion, difficulty in making decisions, nightmares, lack of self-esteem.
Disbelief, numbness, sadness, betrayal, abandonment, rejection, disorganisation, panic, helplessness, anger, guilt, fear, desire to be an innocent child again, anxiety about others dying.
Headaches, tiredness, stomach aches, lack of energy, hyperactivity, restlessness, nervousness, appetite changes, sleeping changes.
Why did this happen? Where is mummy now? Where is heaven? What do you do there? How is God looking after daddy?
The grieving child at school
Meet with the child's teacher and talk about what has happened. It is important that:
- The teacher has correct and appropriate information about the death.
- The child's class is appropriately informed and that a decision is made about who will do this and when. The child may want or need to have a say about this. This gives some sense of control and safety.
- The teacher puts in place ways of supporting the child if distressed e.g. phoning the parent and/or taking the child to a quiet place in the school.
- There is regular contact with the teacher to check perceptions about the child, to share ways of ongoing support for the child and to inform the teacher of any significant occasions that might be coming up.