Coping with the death of a loved one can be difficult, especially for children. Here's how you can help your child manage it.
By Malini Gopalakrishnan
Children’s response to death depends on various factors like the age of the child, how close the deceased was to the child, the cause of death and also whether the child has had prior experience dealing with loss. These general guidelines might help you understand the needs of grieving children better and enable you to help them cope with the loss of a beloved.
Children aged 4 years and younger have no real concept of the finality of death. While babies and toddlers have no comprehension of it, they do tap into the emotional atmosphere around them. If the deceased was one of the primary caregivers, they will experience a sense of loss. This might lead to behavioural changes like the sudden development of separation anxieties, mood shifts, or changes in appetite. Small children become extremely clingy, for fear that anyone who walks out might not walk back in. Toddlers, on the other hand, might feel that the person will return after a while or wonder if he/she is experiencing pain/hunger/cold, etc. With children who are old enough to know such fears, explain as firmly as possible that death is irreversible. Only once the fact is accepted can healing begin. Avoid confusing them with euphemisms like ‘she passed away’ or ‘we lost him’.
Children in this age group are better able to understand the finality of death. They understand that people, pets and living beings in general die at some point due to illness, old age or accidents. They just don’t imagine that it might happen to them personally. Some children might also consider death as something that occurs only to the elderly or the aged. They might find it hard to come to terms with the death of someone younger, a parent or a peer. Children of this age group might also have a lot of questions pertaining to the physicality of death. How it happens, how painful it is, what happens to the body after death, etc. They might indulge in magical theories of the deceased coming back to life or a personification of death taking people away. Give them accurate information, which they will understand as to how the body stops functioning at a certain point. Also, this is a good age to share with them any religious sentiments or stories that you might have about death. Inviting them to participate in the final rites also helps gives them a sense of closure. If they do not want to participate however, don’t force them.
By the time children reach this age, they have a pretty sound understanding that death means the complete, irreversible and biological end of human life. While understanding is one thing, dealing with losing someone they love or care for is something else entirely. Children might go through an emotional upheaval of dealing with the fragility of life and philosophise over the meaning of death. Since they are at emotional crossroads, kids of this age might internalise their feelings. They might want to be more ‘grown up’ by acting outwardly brave. Share with them how you yourself feel, tell them how lost you are. In trying to shield them and being strong for them, parents often give children the impression that expressing grief is a sign of weakness. Hold them and hug them a lot, and keep asserting your willingness to listen to anything they want to ask or say.
While most youngsters adapt to situations faster than the average adult, sometimes grieving becomes exceptionally hard for children. In such a case, a therapist can help. While children might not be able to express all their feelings to their parents, a complete stranger might be what they need. Here are a few signs that your child is not coping with the loss:
Children and teenagers often express their grief in various ways. It is up to us, as parents, to do all we can to ensure that they receive love and emotional support so that their apprehensions about death can be removed.
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