I learned something very important about how children process grief after the death of my first husband 26 years ago, leaving me as the single parent of a nine-month-old and four-year-old.
What I learned was that adults grieve in a more linear fashion than kids. We generally go through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, reorganization, and acceptance. Children, on the other hand, grieve according to wherever they are developmentally. They may go back and forth in the various stages, and as they mature, they will begin to understand the loss in a way that is more nuanced and less black and white. They may actually re-grieve through the eyes of a child who is older.
My now adult younger son is a case in point. As an infant, he may not have been able to comprehend his father’s sudden death. Yet I believe he picked up on the emotional force field around him—the shock, the sadness, the abrupt changes in our daily lives.
I watched him grieve as he grew older and his thought processes became more sophisticated. I remember when he was in kindergarten; he would go into the attic where he would spend hours going through old photo albums, looking for pictures of his father, pictures that they were both in, trying to put the puzzle pieces together.
For many more years, he would continue to ask questions and need to be comforted and reassured that I would not die, too. It was almost an organic process, as though his mind, body, and spirit were gently guiding him as he reached a deeper and deeper understanding of the reality of our family’s loss. Although his older brother had more concrete memories of his father, his grieving process was similar.
Don’t assume young children aren’t grieving if they’re not responding to the loss in the same way as an adult.
The following guide will help you see death through the eyes of a child (typically 5 to 10 years old).
How Children Comprehend Death
• Most children will understand that death is final, although some will still think it’s reversible: “I know Daddy died, but when will he come back?”
• There may be some “magical thinking,” causing children to feel responsible for the death because of their “bad” actions: “Mommy wouldn’t have died if I had listened better.”
• Children tend to view death as something that comes and gets you. Depending on their religious upbringing, they may believe that God takes people to heaven.
• Children often have a morbid fascination with the physical characteristics of the deceased. They may ask detailed questions about how the body looks. They may want to know what happens after the burial or ask for a description of cremation.
• The fear that death is contagious is common. Children may make the connection that because someone close to them has died, another family member—or they themselves—will soon die, too.
How Children Commonly React to Death
• Fluctuating feelings of anger, sadness, and despair
• Anxiety about their own well-being and that of others
• Trouble sleeping/nightmares about the deceased/fear of ghosts
• Need to constantly retell and replay circumstances of the death
• Behavior that’s not normal for the child, such as becoming extremely aggressive or withdrawn
• Regressive behaviors, such as becoming very clingy or needy
• Fear of being overwhelmed by emotions and losing control
• Repressing feelings because of reluctance to disturb the surviving parent with their own anxieties or make the parent sad by talking about the loss.
How to Help Children Process Grief and Begin to Heal
• Explain what happened to cause the death. Answer the child’s questions as honestly as possible. Be patient when children need to talk about what happened again and again. This helps them accept the reality of the loss.
• Give children permission to grieve. Let them know that feeling angry, frightened, sad, or confused is okay and that crying is okay for everyone, including boys. Bereaved family members shouldn’t hide their pain from children. Kids will pattern their responses after their adult role models. And if they see an adult grieving, they will feel it’s okay to express their own grief.
• Make it very clear that the death was in no way their fault and that they aren’t being punished for anything they may or may not have done. Explain that the deceased parent loved them very much and did not want to leave them: it was the accident, sickness, etc. that caused his/her death. The surviving parent should reassure children that although there are no guarantees, he/she will do everything possible to stay healthy and safe.
• Spirituality can be a great comfort, but remind family members to avoid metaphors such as: “Mommy was so good that God took her to live with him in Heaven.” This may lead children to reject spiritual values, fearing that if they are good, they will also die. A more appropriate explanation would be: “Mommy was very sick and the sickness made her die. We believe she is now in Heaven with God.”
• Help and encourage children to verbalize their feelings. Open a conversation with such questions as “Are you feeling sad about daddy?” or share how you’re feeling: “I really miss daddy. I wish he was here to play a game with us.”
• Maintain as much consistency in children’s schedules and routines as possible—both at school and at home. They’ve already experienced tremendous upheaval in their lives, so they need the security and dependability of regular bedtimes, mealtimes, after school activities, etc.
• Provide opportunities for children to express their grief through play or art. Playing and pretending are healthy, safe ways for children to work through their emotions and channel destructive feelings. Using such materials as paint, clay, puppets, and dolls allows children to vent feelings that they have trouble expressing more directly.
• Help children memorialize the deceased. Children often fear they will forget the parent who died. There are many tangible ways for kids to honor the memory of their loved one and carry those cherished memories with them long after the person’s death, such as putting together a scrapbook or photo album about the life of the parent who died; filling a memory box with their favorite things; drawing pictures or writing a poem about their loved one; picking a bouquet or decorating a potted plant to take to the gravesite; lighting a candle at mealtime and sharing stories about the parent who died; planting a tree in his or her memory.
Remember that you can’t fix this huge loss for your children, just as no one can fix it for you, but you can help to make the journey through grief easier and the light at the end of the tunnel brighter by working through your own grief and providing your children with honesty, empathy, consistency, and love.
By Amy J. Barry