Significant loss can diminish a child’s fundamental security and trust. This trust may need to be rebuilt and this takes time. Grieving children will often look for reassurance.
Children do not always have the words to talk about what they are experiencing. They often express feelings of sadness, fear or anger through their behaviour. Usually they are not being naughty, rather, they are saying, ‘I am missing mummy, I am scared, I don’t understand what is going on.’
It is important to check out these feelings and to talk about them. Remember that children learn from adult behaviour and seek permission from adults. This kind of communication can help to strengthen family bonds and reduce individual isolation.
‘If my daddy has died that means mummy can die too and who will look after me?’ Sometimes children become, ‘little mum’ or ‘little dad’ and assume adult responsibilities. It is important to acknowledge changes that have happened in the family as a result of the loss and to work out appropriate tasks. Grieving children still need to experience being children.
Play is natural to children. It helps children regain a sense of control and mastery. It is a safe way of giving expression to what is happening ‘within’. It is a way to express all kinds of feelings. Play offers adults the opportunity to talk with children about safe ways of expressing their thoughts and feelings.
Children tend to say things directly, simply and clearly and their stage of development influences their understanding of death. There are three concepts that are important for children to grasp:
Most children understand these concepts by the age of 9 years. Studies indicate that children’s understanding of death is related to age, verbal ability and cognitive development. Children who are bereaved before the age of seven are likely to come to a partial understanding earlier.
It is important to avoid using euphemisms such as ‘sleeping forever’ or ‘left us…’ as these phrases cause confusion for children.
Being more dependent on parents, clingy, not wanting to go to school, feeling sick more often, wanting to sleep with parents, needing extra help with tasks normally done alone, withdrawal. There may be themes of death in their stories or play.
Shortened concentration span, confusion, difficulty in making decisions, nightmares, lack of self-esteem.
Disbelief, numbness, sadness, disorganisation, panic, helplessness, anger, guilt, fear, desire to be an innocent child again, anxiety about others dying.
Headaches, tiredness, stomach aches, lack of energy, hyperactivity, restlessness, nervousness, appetite changes, sleeping changes.
Why did this happen? Where is Daddy now? Where is heaven? What do you do there? How is God looking after Mummy?