Like adults, children experience similar stages of the grieving process, but can react differently. This is because they have limited experience with life and find it difficult to express the confused jumble of emotions they feel.
Extremes of behavior are common. They may at times seem very upset and then totally disinterested in what has happened. They may want to talk all the time about the person who died, or, not at all. There may be similar reactions in their attitudes to schoolwork. Almost inevitably there will be some children who constantly want attention or complain of minor illnesses such as headaches or stomach upsets.
Sometimes these reactions can persist and deepen. Some children may exhibit a constant and unreasonable anger towards everyone and everything. This may be manifested in shouting or screaming or in physical attacks on siblings or friends. Sadly, animals are often the victims of a child’s confused state; they can feel that it’s acceptable to take out their anger on a family’s pet or to shoot at birds with a catapult or air gun. An important part of a parent’s responsibility is to teach children more appropriate ways of handling their anger in situations like this.
Depression for children can be a real problem. They may isolate themselves from all their friends and family, develop an extreme fear of going to school, and/or threaten suicide. If you feel your child’s behavior goes beyond a normal expression of grief, especially if it lasts more than about six weeks, then consider getting outside help.
Of course, there is a great deal that you can do to help your child yourself. Apart from answering questions as honestly and as fully as you can, you can help by explaining the following concepts:
Death is inevitable: All living things must die. It’s a natural process. People don’t die because they’ve done, thought or said something wrong and are being punished for it.
Death is irreversible: It’s important to make sure that the child isn’t suffering the delusion that if they wish the person back enough they will return. Sometimes young children can be confused by the permanence of death and feel bewilderment, hurt or intense anger when, for example, their parent doesn’t reappear as they used to after a business trip.
Death is for a reason: Some children find it difficult to accept that illness, accidents or old age are straightforward reasons to die. It needs to be emphasized that the illness or accident didn’t happen because that person wasn’t ‘good’ enough to live. Similarly, though it may seem almost callous to even consider it, violent death through murder is a reason to die. It’s important for children to realize this because they often feel that they caused the death because they thought ‘bad’ things.
Death means that all functions of life cease: A child’s world is a very sensory one, full of movement and activity. Some children, who do not understand that all the sensory functions of life and all thought processes end with death, become worried that the dead person may feel cold, hungry or have undergone great pain if the body was cremated, or not have enough air to breathe if it was buried.
Perhaps the most important thing is for you to be patient and be available to talk to the child and to share your own feelings of grief with them. This can encourage them to talk, understand and accept death. It’s also a good idea to have a talk with the child’s teachers at school. After all, teachers are significant adults in a child’s life and can be a great help. They should be asked to make sure that while they should be flexible with the child as regards their school work, they should expect and encourage the child to do the work. Keeping busy is an essential strategy in preventing depression from taking too great a hold.
There are a number of other strategies that can encourage children to grieve in an inclusive, positive way. Together you can plant a tree or a bed of flowers in remembrance of the person who has died. You could help them create an album of photographs or paintings of your loved one; let the children have some input into the writing of any captions underneath the pictures. It can also help if you encourage the child to write down their feelings as a journal, poem or a story. Take some time not only with what is written, but also with the way it’s presented. You could bind all of it into book form, with covers and, perhaps, a photograph of the dead person on the front.
Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago. Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance. He started the Inner Control program because so many patients asked, “what more can be done along with traditional treatment methods?”