Children may not talk about their feelings about the death of someone they knew. They may hold back feelings because they are so overwhelming and thus appear not to be affected. Or, they may express how they feel through behavior and play, rather than through words. However, they do grieve, often very deeply.
Many adults have difficulty with death and believe children can not cope with it. They may try to protect children by leaving them out of the discussions and rituals associated with death. Thus the children may feel anxious, bewildered and alone. They may be left on their own to seek answers to their questions at a time when they most need the help and reassurance of those around them.
On the other hand, when adults share their feelings with a child when a pet dies or when death is discussed in a story or on television, the adult helps the child to handle such “lesser” losses and thereby prepares the child to deal with future losses of those who are much more significant.
As with adults, children’s reactions to death are very individual in nature. However, some common reactions are:
- Shock – the child may not believe it really happened and proceed with normal activities. This is usually because the thought of death is too overwhelming.
- Physical symptoms – The child may have various complaints such as headache or stomachache and fear that this means he/she, too will die.
- Anger – Being mostly concerned with personal needs, the child may be angry to be “left all alone” or that God didn’t “make the person well.”
- Guilt – The child may think that he/she caused the death by having been angry with the person who died or feel responsible for not being “better” in some way. Or they may have wished at some time that the person would die.
- Anxiety and fear – The child may wonder who will take care of him/her now or fear some other loved person (he/she) may die. He/she may cling to the parents or ask other significant persons repeatedly if they love him/her.
- Regression – The child may go back to behavior he/she had previously outgrown.
Most people who suffer a loss experience one or more of the following:
- Feel tightness in the throat or heaviness in the chest;
- Have an empty feeling in their stomach and loss of appetite;
- Feel guilty at times, and angry at others;
- Feel as though the loss is not real, that it didn’t really happen;
- Sense the loved one’s presence, like finding themselves expecting the person to walk in the door at the usual time, hearing their voice, or seeing their face;
- Wander aimlessly and forget and don’t finish things they have started to do around the house;
- Have difficulty sleeping, and dream of their loved ones frequently;
- Experience an intense preoccupation with the life of the deceased;
- Assume mannerisms or traits of their loved ones;
- Feel guilty or angry over things that happened or did not happen in the relationship with the deceased;
- Feel intensely angry at the loved one for leaving them;
- Feel as though they need to take care of other people who seem uncomfortable around them, by politely not talking about the feeling of loss;
- need to tell and retell and remember things about the loved one and the experience of their death;
- Feel their mood changes over the slightest things;
- Cry at unexpected times; and/or
- Children may act younger than they are.
Remember these are all natural and normal grief responses. Crying is appropriate and healing. Talking with people is beneficial.
Danger signals to watch for in grieving children:
- An extended period of depression, the child may lose interest in daily activities and events;
- Inability to sleep, loss of appetite, prolonged fear of being alone;
- Acting much younger for an extended period;
- Excessively imitating the dead person; repeated statements of wanting to join the dead person;
- Withdrawal from friends; and/or
- Sharp drop in school performance or refusal to attend school.
The above warning signs indicate that the child is having serious problem as a result of the death, and professional help may be needed.
Help for yourself:
- Generally it takes 18-24 months just to stabilize after the death of a family member. It may take longer when the death was a violent one. Recognize the length of the mourning process. Beware of developing unrealistic expectations of yourself. Don’t let others put them on you either.
- Your worst times usually are not at the moment the tragic event takes place. Then you’re in a state of shock or numbness. Often you slide ‘Into the pits” 4-7 months after the event. Strangely, when you’re in the pits and tempted to despair, this may be the time when most people expect you to be over your loss. Usually they are people who have not experienced your type of loss.
- When people ask you how you’re doing, don’t always say, ‘fine’. Let them know how terrible you feel. If you don’t try to “educate’ them, how can they be expected to ever come close to understanding you.
- Talking with a true friend or with others who’ve been there and survived can be very helpful. Those who’ve been there speak your language. Only they can really say, ‘I know, I understand.’ You are not alone.
- Often depression is a cover for anger. Learn to uncork your bottle and find appropriate ways to release your bottled-up anger. What you’re going through seems so unfair and unjust.
- Take time to lament, to ‘experience being a victim. It may be necessary to spend some time feeling sorry for yourself. Occasional “pity parties” are necessary and can be therapeutic.
- It’s alright to cry, to question, to be weak. Beware of allowing yourself to be “put on a pedestal’ by others who tell you what an inspiration you are because of your strength and your ability to cope so well.
- Remember you may be a rookie at the experience you’re going through. You don’t know what to do or how to act. You need help.
- In time, try reaching out to help others In some small ways, at least. This little step forward may prevent you from constantly dwelling on yourself. (in helping others we really do help ourselves.)
- Many times of crisis ultimately can become times of opportunity. Mysteriously your faith can be deepened through crisis. Seek out persons who can serve as symbols of your hope.