Dealing with Death or Loss

It is hard enough for adults to deal with death. But kids need special care to help them understand and process what has happened when someone dies. Their future may depend on how they deal with death, especially if it is one of their parents.

Too many kids are not given the proper tools to deal with death and as a result develop long term problems or issues. It is so important as a parent/caregiver to help our children cope and talk about death. If you as an adult find this difficult, it is important to seek guidance and support in order to best help your child.

Dr. Lee recommends that families call Jeff’s Place of Metrowest founded by her friend Jenny Schrieber. They offer free evening support groups for children (ages 5-19) and their caregivers. Visit jeffsplacemetrowest.org

How do kids react to death?

The range of reactions that kids display in response to the death of significant others may include:

  • Emotional shock and at times an apparent lack of feelings, which serve to help the child detach from the pain of the moment;
  • Regressive (immature) behaviors, such as needing to be rocked or held, difficulty separating from parents or significant others, needing to sleep in parent’s bed or an apparent difficulty completing tasks well within the child’s ability level;
  • Explosive emotions and acting out behavior that reflect the child’s internal feelings of anger, terror, frustration and helplessness. Acting out may reflect insecurity and a way to seek control over a situation for which they have little or no control;
  • Asking the same questions over and over, not because they do not understand the facts, but rather because the information is so hard to believe or accept. Repeated questions can help listeners determine if the child is responding to misinformation or the real trauma of the event.

How can I help my child cope with the loss of a loved one?

The following tips may help you to support your child after the loss of a loved one. Some of these recommendations come from Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado.

  • Allow your child to be the teacher about their grief experiences: Give your child the opportunity to tell their story and be a good listener.
  • Grieving is a process, not an event: Allow adequate time for your child to grieve in the manner that works for him/her. Pressing your child to resume “normal” activities without the chance to deal with his/her emotional pain may prompt additional problems or negative reactions.
  • Let your child know that you really want to understand what he/she is feeling and what he/she needs: Sometimes children are upset but they cannot tell you what will be helpful. Giving them the time and encouragement to share their feelings with you may enable them to sort out their feelings.
  • Encourage your child to ask questions about loss and death: Adults need to be less anxious about not knowing all the answers. Treat questions with respect and a willingness to help your child find his or her own answers.
  • Help all of your children, regardless of age, to understand loss and death: Give your child information at the level that he/she can understand. Allow your child to guide you as to the need for more information or clarification of the information presented. Loss and death are both part of the cycle of life that children need to understand.
  • Children will need long-lasting support: The more losses the child or adolescent suffers, the more difficult it will be to recover. This is especially true if they have lost a parent who was their major source of support. Try to develop multiple supports for children who suffer significant losses.
  • Keep in mind that grief work is hard: It is hard work for adults and hard for children as well.
  • Be aware of your own need to grieve: Focusing on the children in your care is important, but not at the expense of your emotional needs. Adults who have lost a loved one will be far more able to help children work through their grief if they get help themselves. For some families, it may be important to seek family grief counseling, as well as individual sources of support.
  • Don’t assume that every child in a certain age group understands death in the same way or with the same feelings: All children are different and their view of the world is unique and shaped by different experiences. (Developmental information is provided below.)
  • Don’t lie or tell half-truths to your child about the tragic event: Children are often bright and sensitive. They will see through false information and wonder why you do not trust them with the truth. Lies do not help the child through the healing process or help develop effective coping strategies for life’s future tragedies or losses.
  • Don’t assume that children always grieve in an orderly or predictable way: We all grieve in different ways and there is no one “correct” way for people to move through the grieving process.

What do kids of different ages understand about death?

It is important to recognize that all children are unique in their understanding of death and dying. This understanding depends on their developmental level, cognitive skills, personality characteristics, religious or spiritual beliefs, teachings by parents and significant others, input from the media, and previous experiences with death. Nonetheless, there are some general considerations that will be helpful in understanding how children and adolescents experience and deal with death.

  • Infants and Toddlers: The youngest children may perceive that adults are sad, but have no real understanding of the meaning or significance of death.
  • Preschoolers: Young children may deny death as a formal event and may see death as reversible. They may interpret death as a separation, not a permanent condition. Preschool and even early elementary children may link certain events and magical thinking with the causes of death. For instance, as a result of the World Trade Center disaster, some children may imagine that going into tall buildings may cause someone’s death.
  • Early Elementary School: Children at this age (approximately 5-9) start to comprehend the finality of death. They begin to understand that certain circumstances may result in death. At this age, death is perceived as something that happens to others, not to oneself or one’s family.
  • Middle School: Children at this level have the cognitive understanding to comprehend death as a final event that results in the cessation of all bodily functions. They may not fully grasp the abstract concepts discussed by adults or on the TV news but are likely to be guided in their thinking by a concrete understanding of justice. They may experience a variety of feelings and emotions, and their expressions may include acting out or self-injurious behaviors as a means of coping with their anger, vengeance, and despair.
  • High School: Most teens will fully grasp the meaning of death in circumstances such as an automobile accident, illness and even a disaster. They may seek out friends and family for comfort or they may withdraw to deal with their grief. Teens (as well as some younger children) with a history of depression, suicidal behavior, and chemical dependency are at particular risk for prolonged and serious grief reactions and may need more careful attention from home and school during these difficult times.

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