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The Grieving Child: Part II

by Deb Sims, MS,RNCS,LCSW

In the last article about children and grief, I talked about the myths of grieving in children and adolescents. I'd like to continue with the following information. Children and adolescents definitely go through a grief cycle just as adults do. However, the way it may be expressed is different based on the developmental age of the child. I hope the following information will help in understanding the age and grief expression relationship. This is dedicated to all who have ever lost a loved one especially as a child.

Developmental stages in a child's understanding of Death or Loss

During very early childhood approximately birth to age 3, a child views death as a loss, separation or abandonment. They have difficulty understanding the whole concept of death.

How to help your child at this age. The most important element at this stage is the response of the living parent and significant others around them. If that security remains intact and schedules remain as normal as possible, they eventually make it through. They take their clues from the security or lack of it around them. It isn't that they don't grieve and we shouldn't pretend nothing has happened, it's just they gain security and transition based on the living parent's response to their own grief.

Ages 3 to 6: At this stage a child sees things as reversible and temporary. They may believe in "magical thinking." In their mind they believe thoughts can cause things to happen.

How to help your child during this age. Because until the age of six, many experts believe that children conceptualize death as temporary. It is as if the person who has died has gone away and they are waiting for them to come home. At this age it's important to use precise terms when talking about death. People typically say things like "you've lost a loved one." A child may interpret this literally and assume the person can be found. At this age children engage in magical thinking and believe that their thoughts and wishes can affect reality. This can either cause them to blame themselves unnecessarily or believe if they are "good" enough perhaps their parent will return. Often at this age, children will exhibit nightmares, confusion, revert to an earlier stage of development or even seem to be unaffected by the death.

Ages 7 to 8: Here a child will begin to see death as final. They may have lost an animal at this point but they usually don't think about it as happening to them. They see it more as something that may occur in an accident, like a car accident or only in old age. They may show an unusual interest in knowing the details surrounding death, begin asking what happens after death, or again act as if nothing has happened. Social development is occurring during this stage so they'll watch how others respond and may even want to know how they should act.

Ages 9 and up: By now the child understands that death is final and irreversible. They not only know it could happen to someone else but also that it could happen to them. At this age, they may exhibit a wide range of feelings. Their reactions begin to be much more like an adult except they may also act out their grief by behavioral changes at home or school

Explaining death to a child.

Many people worry that children can be too young to learn about death. It is better for them to learn what death means from a supportive parent, family member or counselor, rather than allowing them to form their own view of death. From about eight on, a child has usually had some experience with death. This may be the death of a pet or something that they saw on TV. But it is still important to explain that being dead means the body has stopped working and it cannot be fixed. It no longer feels cold or gets hungry, but the positive side of this is that it doesn't hurt or feel pain.

Reassure the child he or she is not to blame for the death. Help them understand that no behavior or lack of it is the reason the person is no longer living. Two things happened to me in the invisible world of grieving children, 39 years ago. The first is that a little girl I knew died two days before my father did.

Since it was my first experience with death, I wondered could our family survive if one of my parents died. I decided that if that had to happen my mother must live because I had three small siblings. Two days later my father died. I believed for years that I caused it. In reality, he had already had one serious heart attack. I probably had been worried and subconsciously preparing for the inevitable. But for years I carried that guilt with no one to ask about it.

Do you remember me saying children transition through the stages of grief better if they have a supportive parent or supportive relatives? I was told to take care of my mother. I did, I learned at twelve to be an excellent caretaker and raised my siblings because my mother withdrew. No one really supported her so she didn't support us. How to help a child cope. Make sure that someone in the family is there for the child. Don't allow the child to experience the withdrawal of the surviving parent without knowing the reason for it. When the surviving parent withdraws this is felt as rejection or desertion. It triggers their worst fears that either they will die or someone else that they love will die. Even if they ask questions that you don't have the answer for, provide them with the security of a safe environment and include them in the grieving process.


Debbie Sims is a Certified Clinical Nurse Specialist in Adult Psychiatric Nursing, has a Masters degree in Clinical Psychology, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She maintains a private practice in counseling but her devotion is to her position as Editor for Beyond Indigo an Internet web site for those who are grieving.