~ Helping Children Cope with Death ~
When a loved one is lost to death, many things
change; this also applies to children. Children are impacted by loss and
death very differently than adults. Their manifestations of grief and reactions
to the death can also be very different. Children will express their grief
in a variety of ways and deal with death in many different ways, not necessarily
in the same manner as adults. Some may appear to be entirely unaffected
by the death.
For many children, their first real experience
with loss occurs when a pet dies. For most children, the death of a family
member is a new experience. Children may find new, unknown experiences
to be confusing and frightening, consequently, most children do not know
what to expect following the loss of a family member or friend. Responses
to death will depend on their age, their prior experience(s) with death,
the person's who dies, the circumstances surrounding the death and what
happens after the death. Young children, in particular, may not understand
what "death" means and may be confused or even frightened by the reactions
of other family members.
No two children will respond exactly the same
way to the death of a love one. Preschooler children have difficulty understanding
that death is not temporary; they often see death as being temporary and
reversible. This belief is reinforced by cartoon characters who "die" and
then come back to life again. Children between the ages of five and nine
begin to experience grief more like adults. They think more like adults
about death, yet they still believe it will never happen to them or anyone
they know. Children often believe that their thoughts, feelings and words
have magical power. They may believe that they can "wish" someone back
to life, or perhaps their angry feelings or hateful wishes, may have caused
someone to die. Children need to be told that their thoughts do not cause
people to die. Children may also make false assumptions about the causes
of major events and assume soem degree of responsibililty for the death.
These assumptions may include some sense that they were at fault for the
event— including the death of a loved one. This can lead to very destructive
and inappropriate feelings of guilt. It is important to immediately correct
any misperceptions or distortions about the death.
Contributing to a child's shock and confusion
at the death of a family member—brother, sister, or parent, grandparent—is
the unavailability of the remaining adult family members, who may be so
affected by grief that they are unable to cope with caring for the child.
Children will look for answers, comfort and support from their parents,
caregivers and other adults in their lives. The death of a loved one can
profoundly affect a child's sense of security. In the case of traumatic
death, the confusion and fear is even greater. In the face of any death,
but particuclarly when faced with traumatic death, parents and caregivers
often feel helpless in this role. While adults may not have answers to
all the questions that a child may have about death, they can help the
child to better understand the grieving process.
To help children cope with a death, parents, caregivers,
teachers and other significant adults in their life must understand how
they think about death and what has changed for them. The adults in a child's
life also need to be aware of the normal childhood responses to death,
as well as signs that a child is having difficulty coping with grief. During
the weeks following the death, it is normal for some children to feel
immediate grief, or hold onto the belief that the family member is still
alive. This may be an adaptive coping mechanism in the short-term, but
should not be allowed to persist into the long-term. Long-term denial of
the death or avoidance of grief can be emotionally unhealthy and can lead
to more severe problems later.
Signs of Grieving in Children & Adolescents
Children, like adults, may temporarily regress,
having temper tantrums, becoming more dependent, being aggressive and having
difficulty learning following a death. Sometimes the grieving child will
take on the mannerisms of a dead family member or revert to joking and
laughing, because he/she is unsure how to express his/her grief. Parents and teachers should
refrain from punishing.
It is important to remember the grieving children need more patience, touching,
holding and reassurance.
The following lists some common ways children
might respond to a death:
Helping Children Cope with the Death of a Loved
Denial, shock and confusion
Anger and irritability
Inability to sleep
Loss of appetite
Fear of being alone
Frequent physical complaints such as stomachaches
Loss of concentration
Guilt over failure to prevent the loss
Depression or a loss of interest in daily activities
Acting much younger for an extended period or reverting
to earlier behaviors (e.g., bedwetting, baby talk or thumb-sucking)
Withdrawal from friends
Sharp drop in school performance or refusal to attend
Excessively imitating or asking questions about the
deceased or making repeated statements of wanting to join the deceased
Inventing games about dying
Humiliation or guilt over personal failure to prevent
loss of life
Profound emotional reactions (e.g., anxiety attacks,
chronic fatigue or thoughts of suicide)
If you have a child or adolescent that is experiencing
grief, or work with a child that is going through grief, the following
lists several things to do to help.
Use concrete terms when explaining death. Avoid terms
such as "passed on" or "went to sleep" Children may not understand that
these terms mean the person has "died."
Answer their questions about death simply and honestly.
Only offer details that they can absorb. Try not to overload them with information.
Allow him/her to attend the funeral if he/she wants
to but do not force it. Let him/her know what to expect at the funeral.
Give the child alternatives for using his grief positively—drawing,
other creative means of expression, writing letters, reading or writing
Make sure your child doesn't feel at fault.
Give the child choices in what they do or don't do
the remember the deceased. Allow the child to participate in the family
rituals if he/she wants to—going to the funeral or cemetery, helping plan the ceremony, picking flowers,
Allow the child to talk about the deceased, but don’t
push them to talk about their feelings.
Be aware that children need time to grieve and be
upset. Let them know you are available to listen when they are ready to
talk. Provide reassurance and validate their feelings when they express
The family's spiritual beliefs about death should
be explained in simple terms. However, the child may not understand the
meaning and although he/she can repeat what was said, he/she may not still
not comprehend what death means.
Children can be fearful about death. Give them a
chance to talk about their fears and listen when they express their fears.
Be patient. It may take them a long time to recover
from their loss.
Expect that their grief may recur throughout their
childhood or adolescence. Strong reminders, such as the anniversary of
a death, a birthday, or a celebration without the loved one may reawaken
grief. Be available to talk.
Children may even mourn the environment that existed
before the death; they grieve the "changed" behavior. It can be helpful
to keep to regular routines.
Hospice Foundation of America.
Helping A Child Deal with Death. Available at: http://www.hospicefoundation.org/helping.htm.
National Mental Health Association.
Helping Children Cope With Loss. 2001. Available at: http://www.nmha.org/reassurance/childcoping.cfm.
National Mental Health Association.
Helping Children Cope with Loss. Available at:
Doka KJ, ed. Living with Grief:
Children, Adolescents, and Loss. Washington D.C.: Hospice Foundation of
American Academy of Child and Adolescent
Psychiatry. Fast Fact # 8. Children and Grief. Updated November 1998. Available
American Academy of Child and Adolescent
Psychiatry. Fast Fact # 78. When a Pet Dies. September 2000. Available
Perry BD, Rubenstein J. The Child’s
Loss: Death, Grief and Mourning: How Caregivers Can Help Children Exposed
to Traumatic Death. ChildTrauma Academy: Parent and Caregiver Education
Series. Vol. 3 No. 1, August 1999. Available at: http://www.childtrauma.org/Loss2.htm.
Weathersby T. How Children Deal
With Death "Helping a Child Cope." Available at:
Children sense and experience
loss and grief from a very young age.
Even infants can sense
when something is amiss, someone is missing or something has changed.