When someone important to us dies, many things change in our lives. The same is true for children. To help children cope with a death, we must understand how they think about death and what has changed for them as a result of the death.
No two children respond exactly the same way to the death of a love one. Children are likely to respond to death differently and need different kinds of help, depending on their prior experience, their age, and what happens after the death.
Children, ages 2 to 4, mainly miss the loved one who has died. They feel sad that they are not with the person anymore, but may think of death as sleeping or taking a trip. Even with careful explanation, do not be surprised if your 3-year-old asks when the dead person will visit. Let your child ask questions and express feelings. Keep explaining in simple terms: "Remember Sara, Grandma died. That means that we won't see her again."
Be aware that your young child may repeat what you say but act like he does not understand what death means.
Young children believe that their thoughts, feelings, and words have magical power. Everyone gets angry at times with people they love. When a loved one dies, a young child needs help to understand that angry feelings or hateful wishes do not cause people to die. Even older children and adults must be reminded of this from time-to-time.
Children should not be shielded from the sad feelings of grieving adults. However, your child may happily play and go about regular activities after the death of someone very important to her. Young children do not understand that death is final and should not be punished or scolded for not grieving like adults. Children express their feelings through play and should be encouraged to do so. Children who are grieving may act younger than they are in response to the death. They may engage in baby talk or be afraid of the dark. This phase typically passes in a short time.
You should not expect young children to comfort you in your grief. They may feel worried and scared. Your child needs to know that the adults will take care of him and that the adults will be okay too.
Your child will use you as a role model for how to grieve. If you do not talk about your grief or the person who died, your child will learn that these topics are not safe for discussion.
Adults need to grieve, but that grieving can take away important energy from the needs of a child. If you have no energy to care for your child in your grief, ask for help. Family and friends can spend time with your child, take your child to normal activities, and attend to your child's needs. Unless you are seriously depressed, your child should not be sent away from you. There are many grief counselors and therapists who can help you cope and help you get your family back on track.
After the death of a loved one or parent, your school-age child may be afraid that you will die too. Help her talk about her fears. Signs of such thoughts may include not wanting to leave you to go to school, headaches and stomachaches, or behavior problems. Ask children what they are feeling and thinking. Reassure them, in a realistic way, that there will always be someone to take care of them.
School-age children often worry about their own health. This is especially true after the death of a loved one to an illness or the death of another child. If your child says his head or stomach hurts, have your doctor check him. You may also want to contact a counselor experienced in working with grieving children. Sometimes a few sessions of play therapy can help children express their feelings and the physical pains go away.
Teens know death is the end and that the dead person will not come back. The death of a parent or other important person can leave your child feeling abandoned and lonely. At this age, religious beliefs can bring comfort but may also bring questions about faith. It is important to give your teen a chance to talk about the death with adults who are also grieving. Your teen may argue and scream, or withdraw. Give your child plenty of chances to talk about all of her feelings and have them accepted.
Although your child may wish to be alone more than usual after the death, get help from a mental health professional if your child:
Contact a local hospice organization for grief support services for children or check the National Hospice and Palliative Care Web site (http://www.NHPCO.org) for services in your area.