Grief and loss through the eyes of a young child

The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - PSYCHOLOGY - DR. BATYA L. LUDMAN The writer is a li­censed clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist in pri­vate prac­tice in Ra’anana, and au­thor of the book Life’s Jour­ney: Ex­plor­ing Re­la­tion­ships – Re­solv­ing Con­flicts. She has writ­ten about psy­chol­ogy in The Jerusalem Post since 2000. lu

Should young chil­dren visit a loved one who is ter­mi­nally ill, at­tend a funeral or be present in a house of mourn­ing? There’s no one right an­swer. Among other things, it de­pends on the child, his age and level of ma­tu­rity, his re­la­tion­ship with the per­son, his in­ter­est in be­ing present and the na­ture of the ill­ness or death.

Per­haps you re­mem­ber how poorly your par­ents han­dled a sit­u­a­tion with you when they were try­ing to pro­tect you from the re­al­ity of loss. While to­day there’s more open­ness to­ward death, help­ing to de­mys­tify it some­what, there’s still su­per­sti­tion, gen­eral dis­com­fort and great am­biva­lence. That said, we know that how we en­gage our chil­dren in these topics will have an im­pact on how they’ll cope with fu­ture loss.

Death and loss are an in­evitable part of life. As much as you’d like, you can­not pro­tect your chil­dren. They con­front death daily when they step on dead in­sects or hear of the loss of a friend’s pet, not to men­tion in books, on TV and in the movies.

While deal­ing with death may be dif­fi­cult, it doesn’t have to be scary and un­com­fort­able. I hope that you can tuck this col­umn away and never have to use it. In be­ing there for your child or grand­child, here are a few thoughts to help you bet­ter un­der­stand their world as seen through their small eyes.

1. Prepa­ra­tion is crit­i­cal in help­ing your child un­der­stand what has just changed in his life. Whether go­ing to visit an ill fam­ily mem­ber in the hospi­tal or go­ing to the ceme­tery or a house of mourn­ing, the more you can de­scribe for the child what he is likely to see and ex­pe­ri­ence, the eas­ier it will be. Vis­its should be brief and in­clude your child only if he wants to be there.

2. In­volve chil­dren as much as pos­si­ble in mak­ing a card or a pic­ture for some­one un­well. If you’re for­tu­nate enough to have ad­vance warn­ing that some­one very sick may die, in­volve your child if pos­si­ble in some way that en­ables him to say his good-byes.

Tak­ing a photo of your child with his loved one, or re­ceiv­ing a let­ter for your child to read at a later time or a spe­cial keep­sake from your loved one, all mean­ing­fully con­nect your child to his loved one both now and in the fu­ture.

At some point you may want to ask your child for his sug­ges­tions for memo­ri­al­iz­ing the loved one: mak­ing a book, plant­ing a tree or some­thing else that holds spe­cial mean­ing for him.

3. Young chil­dren ex­pe­ri­ence a full range of emo­tions and con­fu­sion as they deal with se­ri­ous ill­ness and death of a loved one – whether a par­ent, grand­par­ent, sib­ling, spe­cial pet or friend. If you feel that you’re not the right per­son to talk with your chil­dren about loss, or that it may be dif­fi­cult to deal with your chil­dren when you, too, may have been im­pacted by the same loss, help them find some­one with whom they can feel safe and openly talk to about their feel­ings. Chil­dren need to have an out­let to ex­press their sad­ness and ex­plore their fears and to know that their pain will lessen. When chil­dren feel that they don’t have a safe out­let for talk­ing about their feel­ings, their sad­ness may be ex­pe­ri­enced in many other ways.

4. Chil­dren do best when they know that their world re­mains much the same. They need to feel loved and cared for and know that some­one they trust is con­sis­tently there for them. They may feel very much alone and worry that if some­thing hap­pened to one loved one, it could hap­pen to an­other or, even worse, to them­selves.

5. Young chil­dren will show signs of re­gres­sion af­ter a loss. They may act out, feel an­gry, show changes in their be­hav­ior and mood and even be­lieve that their ac­tions or mis­be­hav­ior caused the ill­ness or death. They may have dif­fi­culty sleep­ing and may grieve not just in their head but all over. They may have headaches and tummy aches and more. They need to know that while this may feel bad, it is nor­mal and will get bet­ter.

6. Chil­dren may have lots of ques­tions and it is im­por­tant to pro­vide sim­ple, hon­est an­swers, while let­ting them know that each of their ques­tions is im­por­tant to you. They may feel very con­fused. As they try to make sense of ev­ery­thing, they’ll come back for more in­for­ma­tion and re­visit the sit­u­a­tion. This can be en­cour­aged by fre­quently ask­ing them how they’re do­ing and what they’re think­ing about. Chil­dren may have fears, wor­ries and con­cerns that adults may not even think about.

If adults don’t pro­vide hon­est an­swers, chil­dren will fan­ta­size and come up with their own an­swers.

Your level of ex­pla­na­tion will de­pend on your child’s age and stage of de­vel­op­ment. Young chil­dren may not have the con­cept of fi­nal­ity or per­ma­nence in death, and may ask the same ques­tion re­peat­edly.

It’s im­por­tant to hear their thoughts, and it’s okay to ac­knowl­edge that you don’t have all the an­swers.

7. Be care­ful of the lan­guage that you use when talk­ing with your child. The word­ing used to de­scribe ill­ness and death must be ex­plicit. Chil­dren need to know that some­one was very, very ill, and us­ing phrases such as “gone to sleep” and “have gone away,” in an at­tempt to lessen the loss, may lead to other prob­lems around sep­a­ra­tion and in­crease their fear that some­thing could hap­pen to them or an­other loved one.

8. Chil­dren grieve spo­rad­i­cally in be­tween play and other ac­tiv­i­ties. They won’t con­tin­u­ously be sad. A child who looks okay may still need to talk. If you bring things up and he doesn’t want to talk with you, he’ll let you know.

9. Chil­dren breathe life into a house of mourn­ing and gen­er­ally do be­long there for at least short pe­ri­ods of time, even if they are not old enough to un­der­stand what’s go­ing on. Re­mov­ing a child from loved ones may in­crease their anx­i­ety at a time when things al­ready seem so un­cer­tain. Chil­dren can get sup­port from be­ing in­cluded and have a chance to say their good-byes.

While deal­ing with ill­ness and loss is not easy, your open and warm ap­proach will make things much eas­ier both now and in the fu­ture.

Chil­dren may have lots of ques­tions and it is im­por­tant to pro­vide sim­ple, hon­est an­swers


CHIL­DREN GRIEVE spo­rad­i­cally in be­tween play and other ac­tiv­i­ties. They won’t con­tin­u­ously be sad.

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