One day I walked into a school compound, I had some business to do in that school. The children were on lunch break and I could see so many children carrying their plates out of the serving area to the dining hall.
On one corner was Steph who was seated alone, looking lost. I walked into that corner and engaged the young girl; she was 6 years. When I asked what she was doing alone, she told me she remembered her mother’s conversations about being a good girl, not giving teachers a hard time and eating her lunch well and she felt that she had disappointed her. That is why she was sitting alone.
I took Steph and walked her to her class teacher as we conversed. While with the class teacher, I wanted to understand what had happened to the mother. Since the class teacher knew I work with children, she told Steph that I was a good person who works with children and I would help her if she told me what happened to her mother. That is when she narrated her story.
Her daddy and many other people buried her mother. The last she had seen the mother; she was in hospital. One-day daddy talked to her and let her know that her mother is no longer in hospital and that she had gone to heaven. while they told her that her mother went to heaven, Steph could not understand why they put her in a casket and buried her.
Her questions were; if my mother went to heaven, when will she come back? Where did they get the person they covered with soil? When did they get her from heaven? Was mom angry with her for playing in class while she expected her to not give the teacher a hard time?
These questions and concerns are very common among grieving children. The sense of belonging in children is very connected to the family – the parent and especially the mother. Loss of a parent, other family member or close friend then causes changes in the child’s daily routine and instability in the child’s life.
If grief is difficult to an adult, then it is even more complex to the child. Most adults who have gone through a grieving season will tell that they did not get enough support. Grieving children get even less support. Steph’s case is not different from the very many others that I have encountered in child therapy and adolescent counseling.
This happens because family and friends do not know how to support grieving children. While I will focus on death, any other loss experienced by the child can lead to the same emotions. These losses include parent’s separation, one parent leaving home to work away, loss of an emotionally connective nanny, loss of friends when the family relocates, etc.
Do we prepare our children for any kind of the loses mentioned? Do we even think of it as important? Children do not grieve like adults. While adults are expressive in talking and crying, children do not express themselves in similar manner. Children grief is sometimes invisible and difficult to notice and this is partly because they do not grieve at once.
At one point, they are showing signs of grief and shortly after they seem to be doing normal things and happy. This does not mean that they are through with grief. It may be that they will come back to grieving some time later because children’s grief may take longer. Children get triggers from time to time (sometimes the triggers are not related to death) and they start to grieve all over again.
Healthy ways of helping the grieving children
Telling the truth about death to the grieving children
Break death into a language that the child can understand to help the child start the process of grieving. Help the child understand what death is. Some language used is too complex for children to understand and therefore does not support grieving. Part of what children find difficult to understand include:
1. We lost him/her. The child may live with the expectations of the person being found and coming back.
2. The deceased passed away or passed on.
3. The person went to heaven. We see the conflicts it caused in Steph’s life.
4. The deceased went on a long journey. The child will expect them to come back.
5. The dead person is asleep. This may make children afraid of going to sleep lest they fail to wake up.
For the children below 5 years I have found it meaningful to talk about the little insects that die when they are hurt or crushed. These little insects die and do not appear again. For example, a child can understand about someone being crushed by a vehicle by understanding about an insect being crushed. That is a language they understand.
For those above 6 years, let them know that the heart stopped, the person did not breathe anymore. The person no longer hears, sees or even reasons. Let the children know they will never see the person again and that the person will not come back.
Letting the children know the reasons why people die
Simplify the reasons why people die. These may include illnesses, accidents, old age, etc. Avoid graphic images especially when death was very traumatizing. Just explain the reasons in ways the child will understand.
Understanding helps to start the child grieving process. My experience with adults who lost parents through death as young children is that they find closure and follow through the grieving if they know what caused their parent’s death.
Children need to be prepared for what will happens on the day of the funeral. Preparation involves the people’s reactions and emotions and the church service if any. They need to understand that the dead body is put in the casket, the casket is lowered in the grave, the casket will be covered with soil and flowers used on the grave.
Give the details of the funeral happenings. Allow children to ask all the questions and answer as genuinely as you can. While adults imagine children cannot handle that much information, the information prepares them for all the day’s activities and facilitates continuous grief in children.
Facilitate for each child to have an adult during the funeral, an adult the child knows and one that they like.
Allow children to express emotions
Let children know that it is okay to express emotions. What adults do in most cases is avoiding to talk about the death around children. Adults also keep their emotions unexpressed around children and this then leaves children feeling that expressing emotions is not acceptable.
Adults also find themselves shielding the children from feeling those emotions. A big number will work at making the children happy when they get sad or making the children forget negative emotions they feel such as anger. From these adult behaviors, children learn not to express emotions related to grieving.
Listen and connect emotionally
This is enough support for a child. Grief in children comes with overwhelming emotions and pain and as such leaves children very vulnerable. Adults feel the need to shelter children from such pain and while the adults’ intention is normal and human, it may not help the grieving child.
To connect emotionally, one needs to listen to the child, not just what they are saying but their behavior and especially what kind of play they are doing. Listen to their emotions if they need to express and do not force them to express if they do not feel like. Assure them that they will have you only if you intend to be present and connecting to them as they journey through life.
I have heard adults telling the children that they will protect them and that they will never get hurt in life. I imagine this adult’s intention is to make the child feel safe, even if that is neither logical nor possible. It is giving false hope.
Incorporate other people who closely work with your children to support them
Let the teachers, trainers, nannies and anyone else who works with your children know that there might be behavior change in your child as a result of the loss experienced. Agree on how to handle the new behavior so that the grieving child is not wounded further. This helps to enlarge the social support circle for your child.
Children find therapy through play and art. There are professionals trained to handle children emotional wellbeing through play and art. When a parent experiences the change of behavior and the child not improving for some time, it is only useful to seek professional help for them. Child therapy helps the child to deal with the overwhelming emotions emanating from the loss.
What to expect from the grieving children?
The child may present with any or all of these behaviors
1. Bedwetting for children who had already stopped to bed wet
2. Acting out/throwing tantrums/crying
5. Going back to a stage already passed like thumb sucking, crawling
6. Poor concentration
7. Sleep disturbances
9. Shame and guilt especially if the person who died was angry with the child or they had arguments in the deceased last days
10. No interest in play
12. Asking for help with tasks that they had already mastered
Questions about the dead or circumstances surrounding the death come up from time to time with grieving children.
Grieving children may get distressed by conversations surrounding the dead. In reality, the distress does not emanate from the conversations but from the painful emotions associated with grief. Adults in many occasions avoid these conversations so as not to upset the child which only teaches the child not to talk about the dead.
For the children, grieving may take years. It gets easier as they grow older if proper support is given to them. With well supported children, they may come to accept the loss at adolescence or young adulthood.
For those children who received less or no support with the loss of especially parents, they may learn unhealthy methods of coping such as substance abuse, delinquency, risky sexual behaviors at adolescence and these behaviors continue to adult life.
When these grief emotions are internalized in children, then they lead to adult behaviors such as violence, homicide or depression. These adults who did not grieve as children are at higher risks of committing suicide or developing other mental disorders. If as an adult you lost a parent at young age, it’s important to seek professional help if thinking about it brings about negative emotions or you are struggling with behavior problems.