By one estimation 99 percent of children will experience the death of either a relative or pet before age twelve. Almost 80 percent will experience both. In addition, children sometimes seriously grieve the loss of a favorite toy, such as a stuffed animal that has been their constant companion. Death and loss affects each child in a different way and is not always dependent on how close or distant the relationship was.
It is possible that some children will be negatively affected by a loss into their adult life. Others will develop a lifelong tendency to be grateful for all that life has to offer, even in bad times and, surprisingly, they also appear to be protected against developing depression after grieving in childhood. The difference in outcomes is believed to be dependent on the difference in support the child receives. If there is a steady adult who is able to converse frankly with the child and encourage the child’s expression of feelings about the loss, healthy adjustment occurs. It is difficult, however, for adults to recognize when a child needs comforting and guidance because children grieve differently from adults.
Young children are only able to endure strong emotions for brief periods. Therefore, after the first wave of grief occurs, parents and relatives may believe that the child has recovered. Unfortunately, the next waves may be expressed as behavior problems—regression, anger, confusion, physical ailments, or even thinking they can hear or see the loved one. The child may end up being punished rather than comforted.
In the event of a death, a parent or adult needs to talk to the child. Because children are concrete thinkers, clear simple language should be used. Do not use euphemisms, such as ‘Grandma has gone to sleep,” or “Uncle has passed to the great beyond.” The child will not understand but may become afraid of going to sleep or taking trips. Instead use concrete words, such as “died” and “death.” Explain death as meaning that the person (or pet) is no longer available, except in all the good memories, which will last forever. Religious explanations may help, but children have a need to know about the physical realities of death.
Children grow through grief when they are helped to label and express their feelings. There are books specifically written for preschoolers about sickness, death and loss. It may seem morbid to adults, but children often act out death, dying and funerals as they play in the months after the event, and/or they will engage in art work with death themes. They need to do this, it is how they cope with their grief. Join in. Helping a child work through his loss, to share in the mourning process, is as healing for the parent as it is for the child.
Evelyn Satterlee, M.Ed.