In 2015, CBS News carried a report about six-year-old Jaden Hayes who suffered the loss of a loved one – not once, but twice. He lost his dad when he was four years old, and then, in July 2015, his mother died unexpectedly in her sleep. "I tried and I tried and I tried to get her awake -- I couldn't," was the little boy’s heartbreaking comment. But Jaden’s story did not end with grief…he started a campaign to make people smile. With the help of his aunt, the child, who lives in Savannah, Georgia, USA, started giving toys to children. It wasn’t that he had overcome his grief and got over his loss. He said, “I am still sad that my mom died.” But it was the way he was healing…such amazing strength and resilience for a six-year–old! (Steve Hartman, CBS News, August 7, 2015).
However, not every child copes so well after the death of a loved one, especially a parent or a sibling.
Understanding the effect of death on a child
Between the ages of five and nine, children begin to have some understanding that all living things — plants, insects, animals, birds, people — eventually die. They are exposed to images of death on visual media, and may develop at least some perception about how death is irreversible. They realise that life stops when a person dies. However, they may not see it happening to them personally, or to their loved ones. They may even wish to distance themselves from it.
When children experience the death of a loved one they may start thinking about their own death, show signs of withdrawal, have eating difficulties, be unable to engage in play, exhibit disturbed sleep patterns, and, of course, cry. They may come to believe that the loved one did not want to be with them. Some children may even think that they had something to do with the death of their loved one.
Grieving children may worry about being abandoned by family members who are still alive, or that other loved ones may also die.
Adults who have responsibility for the bereaved child need to be alert and watch for the child’s reactions to the loss. Assess how the child talks about the loss. See if he is anxious, fears being alone, suffers from a loss of appetite, lacks the desire to play, shows poor school performance, etc. If the child is unable to grieve openly and cope with the loss, there could be a long-term impact on his social and emotional development. The psychological consequences of the trauma could be manifested as an inability to lead a successful life. It could even result in mental illnesses. In rare cases, extreme trauma and inability to cope with the loss can result in death.
Helping children cope with loss
We need to mourn in order to heal from the pain and sorrow of the death of a loved one and move on with our lives. Children need to see adults’ tears and know that it is okay to cry and be sad about the loss. They need to see that even mommy or daddy is crying and that it is not a sign of weakness.
Grieving children need to be encouraged to ask questions about their fears and worries. Research shows that it is best to explain death in the simplest ways and reassure children about the people who still love them and are there to support them.
Involve the child in activities that will help her have positive memories about the lost loved one. You could ask the child to share stories about the deceased person, draw pictures, and look at photographs that include the person. When the child is involved in sharing positive memories, they will heal more quickly and cope with the changed environment.
Parents must try to make use of available opportunities to explain death to their young children during the course of daily activities. For instance, when watching a movie with the child, in which death is portrayed, they can give the child a simple explanation of the event. Similarly, if a child in the neighbourhood or a friend loses a loved one, parents can use it as a “teachable moment” to talk about death.
Communication and emotional support are very important, especially when a loved one is terminally ill, so that the child can be prepared to deal with the inevitable fact of death.
Points to keep in mind
Adults need to first confront their own fears and anxieties about death. They need to continue to hold healthy conversations about the loved one who is no longer with them. Sometimes such conversations may result in the adult and child crying together as they reminisce. Allow the child healthy ways of releasing their pain. But keep in mind that forcing the child to have conversations about the loved one, or prematurely pushing him/her to move on before he/she has fully come to terms with the loss can have serious consequences.
Always be aware that every child is unique. Even two children in the same family do not respond in the same way. So it is important to help each child work out coping mechanisms within his/her comfort zone.
Take particular care to prepare the child well before sending the child back to school after the loss of a loved one. Young children can sometimes inadvertently hurt their friends who are still grieving. Involve teachers, staff and parents of the child’s friends so they have a supportive network while they are at school.
If children are provided a safe, secure environment and constant support in dealing with their feelings, they will be able to slowly accept loss and move on.
Dr Rani George is a Professor of Statistics and Research Methods in the Department of Criminal Justice at Albany State University, Georgia, USA. She obtained BA and MA in Psychology from University of Madras, India and MA in Applied Human Development from University of Delaware, USA. Dr. George has a Ph.D. in Education with a specialization in Measurement, Statistics, and Evaluation (University of Delaware, USA). Dr. George currently serves as the interim Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at Albany State University.
Her areas of research interests include science education, science attitudes, behavioural health among college students and school violence.