It is very sad and we grieve when someone dies. Each adult handles it differently, some with more success than others, and we worry about how to protect children from the pain. A child’s response to death is complicated by his age and level of understanding, by what preceded the death, and by how he sees those around him responding. Luckily we now have an infrequent experience of death, but this means that bereavement is an unfamiliar experience and one can feel very uncertain about how to handle things.
Bereavement is one of the most crippling experiences to touch any of us. But it is surprisingly common for children. Most have experienced the death of a much loved pet, many will encounter the death of a grandparent and a few will have to face the death of a parent, close family member or friend. If we include bereavement by separation or divorce or even just removal to another city away from people who are loving and loved, then the percentage of children who experience bereavement is very large indeed. It is thought that even very young children can have a concept of significant loss – Peek-a-boo is said to mean ‘Alive or Dead’.
Babies at six months begin to understand that they are a person separate from other people and develop Object Permanence’.[This is when they can be seen looking at their feet in wonder when they realise that they are ‘in charge’ of this foot, and similarly realise they are not ‘in charge’ of Mum or Dad. They start to cry at night when they realise that someone important is missing. Prior to this they are crying for comfort, for food etc. Because a child is suddenly able to realise that things are impermanent, the child is suddenly able to miss things.]
Children can grieve significantly even before they reach sixteen months. They are not necessarily responding to what has happened but rather to the atmosphere of the household and the mood of the parents. Siblings of children with cancer show weight loss etc corresponding to the highs and lows of the ill sibling. Even very small children can conceptualise death. Traditionally, it is felt that children conceptualise death from the age of five but it is likely to be much earlier if children have been through unpleasant experiences. Children can cope with death in a more mature way if they are taught how – it is easier, perhaps, to practise when animals die or you find a dead bee on the pavement rather than when it becomes critical through a significant loss.
There are four concepts that people must have to comprehend death:
Irreversibility: There is no return. It must be understood that death is irreversible or else anger will arise. Irreversibility explains mourning and the need to adjust your relationship to the deceased. It is important to believe that separation is not the same as death, and vice versa.
Finality: Small children believe that everything is alive. It is hard for children to believe that everything stops and they often worry that people are stuck in graves, are still hungry, still able to see etc Inevitability: Death is a natural phenomenon and inevitable. It makes sense to talk about this when it is not a critical issue. When death occurs, many children may feel either that a] the child was responsible for this or b] the deceased has been really naughty. It is vital that the child understands that death will occur to all of us at some point.
Causality. Children must be encouraged to understand the real reason behind death. This is helpful – the reasons are often easier for the child to deal with than those he may imagine. It is important, therefore, to talk with your children about death in a matter-of-fact way, and before the event. Try to spot the dead bumble bee on the pavement, or squashed hedgehog on the road, and say something sympathetic but not maudling – Oh Dear, that poor hedgehog has been squashed. Try to answer questions truthfully, ‘I don’t know’ is a perfectly acceptable answer. As is ‘Mr Handley was very old, perhaps that’s why he died’. In this way, children can become used to the idea that death happens.
Death is a part of life, children should be encouraged to understand that we will all die. Inevitably, when someone you love dies, there are also a lot of emotions involved and it helps for the child to see that the loss is significant. If someone has been important to you, then any number of emotions are involved: grief for the person who has died, loss, possibly regret for things you will no longer share together, perhaps relief that the person is no longer suffering. You may also feel It Is Not Fair, and often very sorry for yourself. You may also have an urge to get out and move on, to prove that you are still alive. In the midst of this, you are trying to protect your child, to make sure that your child can cope. But your child is often trying to protect you too. It is healthy for your child to see your grief and for you to talk with the child about how much sorrow you are feeling. But try to make any death an opportunity to celebrate all the wonderful things about the person who died, the happy times you spent together and the good memories you have. The child will be highly sensitised to your grief and if you are unable to talk about it, your child will feel the need to protect you and keep his feelings hidden also.
Allow the child to know what happens at a funeral, explain what happens to the body if it is a cremation but make sure the child knows that you are talking about the body and not the person. I believe the child should be allowed to attend the funeral if he wishes. If he chooses not to, find an opportunity to say goodbye to the person in some other way. Perhaps the child would like to draw a special picture for you to put by or in the coffin. Or perhaps you could buy a helium balloon, take it together to the countryside, and then talk about the person who died for a little while before releasing the balloon and saying goodbye. Some people buy a star for the person who died: either a real one with co-ordinates, or one on the Winston’s Wish website. http://www.winstonswish.org.uk/ is a fantastic site for helping children [and their parents] to deal with bereavement.
Try not to make the person who died ‘disappear’. It helps if the photos are still around the home, and if conversation includes memories of whoever died. It helps too to remember some of the less attractive things about the deceased; if Grandad was sometimes really grumpy, or Aunty Margaret smoked and coughed a lot, that is part of the person you’ve lost. It is important for all of you to remember the real person, not a saint. Children who have been bereaved may not show grief as an adult would. They may seem absolutely grief-stricken one moment and then rush off to play, apparently having forgotten all about Granny. They might ask quite inappropriate questions, or ask at unlikely times. The child is processing what happened and trying to make sense of something that doesn’t make much sense at all. If it helps your child to make sense to believe that Granny is sitting on a cloud, or is a very bright star a long way away, that’s fine; it can be comforting to believe that she is still somewhere out there – in many ways it is a simplified alternative to the adult belief that the spirit remains. Be available to your child, but don’t be hurt or surprised if in the middle of some deep conversation he says ‘I want to go and play now’ and wanders off. That’s how it works. Leave photos around and talk about When Granny wore that Silly Hat, or How Angry Grandad was when He bumped His Car. Help the child to remember the whole person, the person you loved and whom you will miss. That person will go on living for you, for ever.
A quote from a tombstone – What will survive of us is love.