How do Children Understand Grief?

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Adults often feel uncertain about how best to help children, and are therefore reluctant to discuss their feelings when a death occurs.

Many adults believe children under 16 years are not old enough to understand.

THIS IS NOT THE CASE. ‘COMPREHENSION’ LEVELS

AGES 0-2 YEARS

They sense that something is wrong and need to be part of the remaining family. Plenty of cuddles and maintaining routine is important.

AGES 3-4 YEARS

Pre-schoolers see death as a temporary separation, even if they view and attend the funeral. This is NORMAL. It may need to be explained again and again, gently and with someone they trust. Words like; gone away, passed away, should be AVOIDED as they cause more confusion. The children should not be removed from the parent.

AGES 5-8 YEARS

Often called the ‘magical thinking age’. A belief that wishing can make something come true. The child can feel immense guilt if ‘I wish you were dead’ has been said to the person who died. A child may become very quiet. ‘If I am very good ….. will come back.’

AGES 9-10 YEARS

This age group is interested in what happens after death. They may have some ideas of a soul, can relate to some mysteries of death, but want to get all the answers. WHAT HAPPENS IN THE GROUND? They express their sorrow as adults .. apathy or cry a lot, become hostile and angry.

AGES 11 YEARS AND UPWARD

They have the capacity to think as an adult, they need to be treated as equals, with honesty and be part of the decision making process of the family.

REACTIONS AND CONSEQUENCES

Childhood bereavement does not necessarily mean a child’s development will be affected. What does happen … the disrupted family life and inability of the parent to come to terms with their loss can effect the children.

Death of a parent can result in a lower income, social isolation. The surviving parent may work harder thereby not giving enough attention to the children’s’ emotional needs.

SIBLING DEATH

May have a lasting effect on a child if he or she is excluded from the grieving family.

Again the situation is often complicated by the parents own grieving and understanding of death. Small babies are vulnerable to emotional deprivation, because a mothers preoccupation may be seen as rejection by a small child. That child becomes demanding and difficult. Older children try to understand the parents grief, but can feel resentful and guilty

COMMON PROBLEMS

Lack of adequate explanation to children, causing anxiety and fear. Parental grief results in a child feeling neglected (Why doesn’t Mummy love me too?)

Removing children from home to relatives causes anger and feelings of rejection.

A child fears that the other parent may also die and becomes over demanding.

A deceased sibling is not referred to in front of the remaining children – increases anxiety and bewilderment.

A terminal illness of one child causes anger and frustration of the parents, it may cause them to vent this on the healthy child.

WHAT HELPS CHILDREN COPE WITH DEATH

1. Tell the children about the death immediately, openly, honestly. By a parent or someone they trust.

2. HOW it is said is of greater significance than what is said. Our non-verbal’ attitude communicates itself to children.

3. Stay close to children, hug them, let them feel your love and concern.

4. Speak simply and accurately, in fact children will ask the same questions again and again.

5. Ask the children if they wish to see the deceased with you. Explain that you are going to cry and that it’s okay to feel sad. Especially for boys and men.

6. Encourage children to attend the funeral. They need the opportunity to say good-bye.

7. Explain grief to children and ENCOURAGE then to grieve openly.

8. Allow each child to grieve in his or her own way, they are individuals and grieving takes time.

© Gizelle Forgie 2014

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