Grief and Loss through a Child’s Eyes
June 19, 2012—When my brother died, my middle daughter was only eight. As we stood in the cemetery watching them lower his ashes into the earth, she held tightly to my hand and, dry-eyed, asked “how did they fit Uncle Tony into that little box?” I explained that when Uncle Tony realized he was probably going to die, he told everyone that he wanted to be cremated afterward. I also explained that being cremated means your body is heated until it turns into ash so it can be carried more easily and will fit into smaller spaces like that box.
At the time, she didn’t ask anything more about the uncle who had been so present in her life but even through my own grief it was easy to see signs that she, too, was grieving—in the unique and sporadic way that children do.
Although it is often hard for adults to notice, children do grieve when their life changes due to a family member’s death. Unfortunately, surviving adults often assume that the family’s bereavement has little impact on children; or they may assume that if they avoid talking about the death, the impact will be lessened. In fact, the opposite is true: the impact is usually compounded when adults try to shield children from emotional realities.
Helen Fitzgerald has long been a recognized expert in thanatology—the study of the social and psychological effects of death and dying. Formerly the director of training for the American Hospice Foundation, she emphasizes the importance of telling children about the serious illness or death of a loved one at the first opportunity, using simple, clear and honest language.
“A child kept uninformed about something so important to him or her is likely to draw conclusions that are wrong and that only create more anxiety for the child,” she says. “For example, the child might think that a hospitalized father is staying away because he doesn’t love the child anymore. Or the child might think that the illness of a loved one is contagious and that he or she might catch it too. Children need correct information given to them in language they can understand.”
This means using words like “dead,” “cancer,” and even hard-to-say words like “murdered,” if they fit the situation. Use the conversation as an opportunity to attune with the child emotionally, identifying how far they understand your words and explaining those they don’t understand. For preschoolers, the concept of death itself may be difficult to grasp. Avoid confusing euphemisms. “We lost Grandpa,” is likely to make a child wonder at your carelessness. One can only imagine what images might be evoked by “he’s gone to meet his maker,” or “he’s sleeping with the angels.”
Fitzgerald recommends that all parents take advantage of “death education” opportunities whenever they are presented. Suppose, for instance, that you and your child encounter a dead bird. Talking about what the bird could do while it was alive and explaining that it can no longer do any of those things can help a child understand the general concept of death. “Then,” says Fitzgerald, “talk about feelings.” Acknowledge that people often feel sad when something or someone dies, and explain that people often say goodbye to loved ones with a funeral. “Children love ritual and ceremony,” Fitzgerald observes, and you may find your child wants to have a funeral for the bird. You can, of course, explain that animals in the wild can be left to decay naturally—or you may choose to allow your child the pleasure of a ceremony. Either way, says Fitzgerald, it can be a learning experience that prepares your child for the future loss of loved ones.
When a loved one does become seriously ill or dies, be prepared for direct questions but don’t be surprised if your child responds by abruptly switching to another topic after you’ve answered. Children grieve more sporadically than adults, says Fitzgerald. They also find it easier to put grief aside to focus on something else for a time, a capacity that is aided by the fact that they don’t have to make funeral arrangements or deal with the other details that force adults to focus on the daily reality of their bereavement.
Of course, as parents focus on these things it can be tempting for them to let daily routines slide, thinking children will benefit from temporarily relaxed rules. This may be understandable from an adult’s point of view—they themselves may be taking time off from work or other routines. But children need predictable structure more than ever when everything around them seems to be falling apart. The best thing parents can do to help children through this period is to maintain familiar household routines, rules and boundaries as much as possible.
If the family is mourning the death of a child’s parent, Fitzgerald warns that it may not seem as though the child is grieving as much as the remaining spouse. “However,” she explains, “we are learning that children who have a parent die often fantasize about their own deaths, seeing death as a way to regain the company of the deceased.” And of course, the remaining parent is negotiating his or her own grieving process, so they may not be attuned enough to the children’s emotions to identify them and provide the comfort and reassurance they need. And they do need some form of both, whether they seem to be grieving or not, Fitzgerald insists. Far too many children who have experienced the death of a parent find it difficult to overcome fears of abandonment in later relationships.
Clearly, some family deaths will not affect children quite so dramatically as that of a parent. For instance, most children are well aware that people grow old and eventually die, so they may not feel abandoned in response to a grandparent’s death, although depending on how close they were, they may experience significant grief.
On the other hand, the death of a sibling can be extremely difficult, even into adulthood. They are our peers: We have to accept that if our siblings can die, we can too. But there may be even more complexity during childhood, especially if the death is preceded by an illness that may have created some asymmetry in the treatment of the children. The well children may interpret the ill child’s extra attention as a form of favoritism and may even have thoughts that they feel deeply ashamed about after the sibling has died. Young children, in particular, may blame themselves for their sibling’s death as a result of such thoughts. Although they are unlikely to discuss any of this with an adult, it will be important for them to know the true cause of death.
This brings us back to the central point in dealing with grieving children: trying to shield them from the truth almost always has negative—if unintended—consequences. Children should be informed of a loved one’s death with kindness and compassion, certainly. But accomplishing this also means informing them early, honestly and frankly, so they can navigate their grief constructively.
“Children have minds,” Fitzgerald reminds us. “They have imaginations. If they are told the truth in a loving and caring way, and if they are allowed to express their grief, they are capable of accepting even the most painful and devastating losses that life has to offer.”
And of moving forward to enjoy love, hope and new growth afterward.