When a child experiences a death of a loved one, their world turns upside down. Adults often have trouble recognizing the grief of young children. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said that children are the forgotten mourners. This is because they express grief differently than adults so we don’t realize they are grieving. In addition, children in this age group are just beginning to express themselves verbally, so their ability to talk about their experience of loss is limited.
Young children experience the absence of a loved one who has died. We often think this isn’t so for two reasons. First, we hope with all our hearts that children can be spared the experience of death. Thinking of any child grieving is painful, but it is especially hard to think of a young child grieving. Secondly we say that children are resilient, hoping that they won’t really be affected by their first death, especially if it comes at a young age. The truth is that resilience is developed when children can safely express and get support for their grief.
Often a child’s first death will be the death of a pet. When my daughter was four years old, we took in some abandoned baby rabbits. One of the bunnies died despite our efforts. We had a funeral ceremony in the backyard and said a prayer for Peter, the bunny. Emily cried and was very sad. The grief was real and painful for me to see, but very normal.
If the child experiences the death of one of their primary caretakers: parent, nanny, babysitter, grandparent they will often deeply experience the absence of that person. Grief is our natural human response to loss. Remember that children in this age group are just beginning to express themselves verbally, so their ability to talk about their experience of grief is limited. Their grief will be expressed in behavior. They will more often show you how they are feeling than tell you.
In this age group grief can be observed as changes in behavior: irritability, regression to a previous stage of development such as having more tantrums, not wanting to separate from their primary caretaker, wetting their pants or the bed at night. They may have difficulty sleeping and eating just as adults do when they are grieving. This is all normal. Their behavior is letting you know that they need more care; that they are grieving.
Some children will try to be very good, thinking that something bad they did may have caused the death. This belief needs to be explored and gently corrected. See behavior as not good or bad, but as information. This is not a time for time outs, but for “time ins”. Children are saying they need more from the adults around them and we need to do our best to provide familiar routines, reassurance and attention.
Children in this age group are just beginning to understand the concept of death. About an hour after the burial of my daughter’s pet bunny, she asked me to dig him up to make sure that he was really dead. Children do not understand that death is permanent, so they will continue to look or wait for the person who died to return. Adults need to continue to explain what death is to children in this age group while being patient as this understanding develops. A good book for this is, I Miss You by Pat Thomas. She does a beautiful job explaining death, “When someone dies their body stops working, the stop breathing and their heart stops beating. They can’t think or feel anymore. They don’t eat or sleep.”
Adults also need to be cautious about the words we use. It is best to use the words: died, death and dead. Terms like: “sleeping, lost, or gone to a better place”, are confusing concepts for children. One five year old boy who came to our grief support center was looking everywhere for his deceased mother because people kept telling him he had, “lost his mother”.
Children in this age group have what is called magical thinking. They do not understand cause and effect. If the person died after they had a tantrum, they may feel that their behavior caused the death. They may also try to determine why the person died and avoid things associated with the person. For example I recently heard about a three year old whose six year old sister died suddenly. The three year old wouldn’t eat chicken because it was her sister’s favorite food and she thought that eating the chicken might have been why her sister died. Children need to be told that people die because their bodies stop working. They need reassurance that their bodies are healthy and if they get sick you will help them get better. Follow the child’s lead. Share a little bit and then let them ask questions when they want to know more. Explain things without expecting that understanding will happen quickly.
The person who has the awful task of telling a child that someone has died needs support about what to say and how to continue to help their child. Reading books or articles on line, going to grief counseling, attending a support group or asking for help from friends and family is so important. Supporting a grieving child is hard especially when you too are grieving. Set an example for your child by seeking out the help you need.
Helping our children understand and cope with the experience of death is a gift. When children are not told to just be good or strong, but are instead allowed to have all their feelings, they learn to get comfortable being vulnerable and needing others. This helps them become stronger and more resilient adults because they will know how to cope with the unavoidable adversity that will come their way. Learning to cope with death helps children know how to live.
Connie Palmer, LCSW is the Clinical/Training Director of Imagine: A Center for Coping with Loss located in Westfield, NJ. Imagine provides grief support groups for people of all ages. Go to imaginenj.org for more information.