We cannot protect a child from death. Death is all around us and children may encounter death at a very early age, their pet may die or a family member. It can be very distressing and uncomfortable for family members, as they may not know what to say, or how to cope with their child’s reactions.
It can be very frightening for a child if the adults around them are being secretive and keeping them separate from the family grief process and also the preparations for the funeral etc. A child’s imagination may run riot and they may put their own interpretation on what is happening. They may think it is their fault or have all kinds of horrible thoughts about the funeral process, or where their relative has gone to.
A young child can think literally, for example, they may hear someone mention a head stone and may think it is a literal head. If someone tells the child that their Grandad is a star looking down on them from heaven, it may seem comforting to an adult, but it can send some children into a state of terror as they may think their every move is being seen and monitored by Grandad.
As adults, we wish to protect young children from the horror and pain a death in the family brings with it, however, much as we may think we are shielding them, a child will pick up tension in the environment and also emotional upset from the adults around them. They may even mimic the anxiety and distress in their own behaviour.
It is important to be honest with children and respond to them in a way which is appropriate to their age. Children feel the effects just as much as adults, but they respond in different ways.
Children may not be able to cope with strong emotions for a long period of time so they may cry and appear distressed, then abruptly go to play a game and appear fine. They dip in and out of grief feelings. Children may ask many questions and may appear fascinated by death and explanations of it; this is just a child’s way of processing the event.
It is important to explain death as concisely as possible as a child may actually look for a “lost” person or think they are coming back if we talk about loss rather than death.
Very young children do not understand the permanence of death so may find it a struggle to accept that they will never see a loved one again. One way of helping a child to process death may be by looking at a dead fly or other insect or animal and talking about its life-cycle, acknowledging that it is not going to come back to life.
Children may appear very clingy and needy when a close relative has died. They may display attachment issues as they will fear losing another person. They may feel very anxious and insecure and display separation anxiety, needing to know where their loved one is at all times and wanting to be close to them. A previously confident child may become more scared and unable to cope on their own. A child may even blame themselves, and this can be very frightening indeed for them to think they caused the person to die.
Anger is a normal reaction in grief and children may feel this very strongly and not know how to contain it. This may be displayed in their behaviour. It is helpful to acknowledge and normalize a child’s anger and help them to express it in safe ways such as punching a pillow, stamping their feet, ripping up paper or exercising such as kicking a ball etc.
Therefore, it is important to include young children in the family’s grief and mourning, allow children to ask questions and answer them as honestly and age appropriately as possible. Allow the child to process and grieve in their own way and reassure them that their feelings are okay and normal and they are in no way to blame. Be aware that children may become clingier and show regressive behaviour after the death of a close loved one, this is because they feel insecure, but this will pass. It is important that a child feels included, feels listened to, heard and understood and secure in the knowledge that other adults are there for them and that they are safe.
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