When a child experiences a death of a loved one, their world turns upside down. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said that children are the forgotten mourners. This is because they express grief differently than adults so they often don’t appear to be grieving. One moment they may be visibly upset and the next appear to have gone back to normal. While children in this age group are becoming able to identify and express their feelings, they may not be comfortable talking about such a difficult subject. Play is still the primary mode of self-expression which can be frustrating for the caring adults who feel that the child needs to “talk about what has happened”.
Your child will tend to express their grief through drawing, relating their experience to television shows, or by acting out what has occurred in play. When spending time with a child after they have experienced the death of a loved one, it is helpful to follow their lead. If child wants to talk or ask questions you listen and answer their questions. If the child wants to play, play with them.
Children in this age group may express their grief by being irritable, acting younger than their age, having difficulty concentrating, or become withdrawn. The adults around a grieving child of this age need to “listen” to their behavior by reflecting back what you have observed, “It sounds hard to pay attention in school, I wonder if it’s because you are missing Grandma” or “You are spending a lot of time by yourself”. Avoid problem solving or giving advice because there is nothing to fix or solve. You can set limits on behavior while affirming the feelings behind it. “I know you’re mad about Daddy dying, but you can’t hit your brother when you are mad”. A coworker whose father died often says that she and her brother weren’t “bad kids”, but rather were sad kids who didn’t have a safe place to express their grief. If children are supported in expressing their grief they are eventually less likely to act it out.
It is helpful to let those who care for your child: teachers, child care workers, babysitters, Sunday school teachers know about the death that has occurred. Often there is initial sensitivity, but children can “act out” their feelings of grief for quite a while after the death. Educating them about your child’s reaction to the death may help them create a supportive environment. It is a good idea to create a plan that if your child becomes upset while at school, they can go to the guidance counselor or nurse without having to ask their teacher. Children who are grieving do not want to appear different or draw attention to themselves.
In Kate Braestrup’s book, Here If You Need Me, she describes a conversation with the therapist who is seeing her children after the death of their father. “My children are suffering,” I told the psychologist. “They cry, Sometimes they don’t want to eat, they have dreams from which they awaken, weeping. What can I do to make the suffering stop?” The child psychologist said to me, gently, “Their father died.” “I know that,” I said. “And they cry, and they don’t want to eat, and …” “They lost their father. When someone we love dies, it hurts. You have to let them hurt.” “Bless him, he was right: the only way to make my children immune to pain was to make them impervious to love. And for that, fortunately, it was too late.” If your child has experienced the death of someone they love, remember your child is grieving and the only solution for grief is to grieve.
Younger school age children are beginning to understand that death is permanent, but this concept develops slowly. At ages seven and eight, children may still wonder when the person who died will be coming back. Because of this developing understanding, it is important to use words like died and dead. When adults use euphemisms like “passed away” or “lost”, it keeps children from understanding the permanence of death. Children may need to keep asking questions about if the person who died is coming back and adults need to be patient with this combination of wishful thinking and evolving understanding of the concept of death.
Children who experience a death at age nine to eleven will often understand that death is permanent. Many kids in this age group have begun to understand that death is universal and that they too could die. This unexpressed understanding may often result in increased anxiety or nightmares. It is important to reassure children that they are healthy and that you take safety precautions to keep them alive and well.
While children at this age are more able to comprehend cause and effect, they may carry guilt that they did something that caused the person’s death by doing or thinking something “bad” or that being “good” could have prevented it. For example, if they were angry at the person before they died, they may feel that they caused the death or that it is their fault. Even if your child makes no mention of this thought, it is helpful to mention to them that they did not cause the person’s death.
It is important to involve children of this age in making decisions about their participation in the funeral. No child should be forced to attend or view the body, but they should have the option to choose. Explain to your child what to expect. If you are not available to be with your child at the funeral or funeral home, ask someone to watch over and be with your child. It is okay to take games or fiddle toys with them. Many funeral homes have rooms where children can go if they choose not to be in the room with the body.
Children at this age are beginning to develop empathy for others. If you are grieving too, it is okay to let your child see your grief. This helps normalize the grief they are feeling and gives them permission to express their feelings. They can be supportive of others without being responsible for them.
Being with other children who have experience a death is very helpful. Go to the Dougy Center website http://www.dougy.org/ and click on Grief Resources. You can enter your city and state and find grief support groups near you. Many schools also run grief support groups.
In order to support a child who is grieving it is so important for you to get the support you need. Seeing your child grieving and trying to support them is some of the hardest work we do as parents. Find friends, family or groups where you can talk and they will listen without judging or giving unsolicited advice.
As painful as it is for a child to grieve, it also helps them develop the resilience to deal with other losses they will encounter in life. This resilience is developed as your child is able to feel and express their grief without shame. The support you provide in this time is one of the most precious gifts you give to your child.