As parents, we want to shield our children from the pain of losing a loved one. But no matter how hard we want to protect them, children can’t help themselves from feeling grief. What we can control on our part is to help the child feel safe and to let him express his feelings in his own way. By helping the child deal with the loss, he’ll learn to build a very important life skill that he will need in the future—healthy coping skills.
Children Grieve in Different Ways
Children have different reactions after experiencing the death of a loved one and these depend on their developmental level. Their reactions can range from crying one minute and then playing the next. Some children are in emotional shock and do not display any feelings, while some children throw tantrums or other forms of explosive behavior. Other expressions of grief may also be regressive or immature behaviors such as separation anxiety and having the need to ask the same questions repeatedly because they cannot believe or accept the fact.
For infants and toddlers, they can perceive that the adults are sad but they don’t understand the significance of death.
For preschoolers, they may think that death is reversible and not a permanent condition. They may also connect a certain event to be a cause of death. For example, they may think that swimming causes death and they may want to avoid swimming in pools and lakes altogether.
For elementary-age children, they can understand that death is final and permanent. They can see that a car accident can kill people. But they may tend to over-generalize and think that not driving a car can stop people from dying. Also at this age, death is something that only happens to other people and not to himself or his family.
Help the Child Understand the Tragic Event
Children can become their own teachers and help themselves cope with death. Let them grieve in their own way, allow them to talk, and listen. If the child is not yet ready to go back to his normal routine, don’t force them. Give him enough time to work things out and to be ready when he is. Some children ask a lot of questions about what happened, and you must tell the truth to them. They can figure things out and know when you are giving them false information. Give the right information based on what the child can understand.
According to Dr. Jessica Charron of Clinton County Medical Center, answer only what the child asks because too much information may be too overwhelming for him. For very young children, the permanence of death may be too hard to grasp and they may think that being a good kid will bring a dead loved one back. Older children may still have many questions and even though you can’t answer all of them, what’s important is that you make yourself within reach to the child.