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  • Writer's pictureDr Martine Prunty

Helping Children when a Loved One Dies

Updated: Sep 29, 2021

Knowing what to do and how to support our children when a loved one dies can be very difficult, particularly when you may be grieving the loss of that person as well. While children younger than 3 do not have the cognitive and language development to understand the concept of death, they are often very aware that something terribly sad has happened. In children between the ages of 3 and 5, death is often seen as reversible and people are just “less alive” or in a similar state to sleep.

The tendency to impose adult concepts of grief on children has generally led to a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding about children's grieving. Children's reactions to loss do not look exactly like adults' reactions, either in their specific manifestations or in their duration. For example, often what seems glib and unemotional in the small child—such as telling every visitor or stranger on the street, "my sister died"—is the child's way of seeking support and observing others to gauge how he or she should feel. Children may be observed playing games in which the death or funeral activities are reenacted in an effort to master the loss. A child may ask the same questions about the death over and over again, not so much for the factual value of the information as for reassurance that the story has not changed. A four- or five-year-old might resume playing following a death as if nothing distressing had happened. Such behavior reflects the cognitive and emotional capacity of the child and does not mean that the death had no impact.

How do children respond?

Children commonly alternate between approaching and avoiding their feelings, which is thought to be less overwhelming. They may also not seem obviously grief-related which can lead adults to think they are not affected. Instead, children under age five are likely to respond with eating, sleeping, and bowel and bladder disturbances; those under age two may show loss of speech. School-age children may become phobic, withdrawn, or excessively care-giving. Displays of aggression may be observed in place of sadness, especially in boys who have difficulty in expressing longing. Adolescents may respond more like adults, but they may also be reluctant about expressing their emotions because of fear that they will appear different or abnormal.

What can you do?

· Offer comfort and care. Continue to tend to their basic needs of food, shelter, hygiene and play.

· Be aware of your own grief as sometimes you may be so overwhelmed that you’re unable to be emotionally available to your child. Ask for help so that there is another adult available to care for your children so that you have the space you need to mourn your loss.

· Use simple, concrete language. It is always most important to be honest. Give a simple, direct, child-centered, age-appropriate explanation. Hiding the truth can increase their anxiety when they miss the presence of the person who has died. One way is to explain that when someone dies the body stops working.

· Keep change to a minimum. All toddlers need structure but routine is particularly important at times like this. Keeping mealtimes, bedtime and bathtime the same lets them know that their life continues and that they will always be cared for. Avoid making changes such as daycare, moving into a bed, potty training, etc for the time being.

· Allow them to participate. Provide an explanation of the type of ritual that your family uses based on your religion or culture. Encourage, but don’t force, them to attend the funeral. Explain that it is a time to be happy about your love for the person, a time to be sad that they are gone, and a time to say goodbye.

With love, attention and patience, children learn to understand loss. Whilst you cannot take their sadness away, your consistency and unconditional love will help them grow into emotionally healthy adolescents and adults.

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