On December 20th, a childhood friend of mine was killed in an accident. Her nine year-old daughter Sarah was orphaned just before Christmas. A tragic and sudden death leaves everyone reeling. Knowing how to help young children cope with death can be difficult given that everyone else is also in crisis. The adults have to function, and the child has to be cared for. Most adults don’t know how to talk to children about death, and don’t know what is and what isn’t normal in the grief process. The subject of children and grief is vast, but this is what you can expect with young children ages 0-9, and how you can help them in their grieving.
Infant-Two Years: Babies and toddlers have no concept of death, and no words to express anything. They live in a physical world. They sense the change in routine, and the loss of the loved one’s presence – their voice, smell, touch, seeing them. They can experience anxiety and fears that they are being abandoned because at this age they are completely dependent. They may cry, have health and sleep issues, and display physical behaviors like rocking, thrashing, hitting, biting, sucking. The most important thing for them is to be able to feel physical closeness and have their routine as close to normal as possible. Affection, cuddling, routines, and a lot of patience will do much to soothe these bewildered little ones.
Three to Five Years: Children this age have no ability to cognitively understand the permanence of death, even if they can understand some of the biology. They feel fear, sadness, anxiety, insecurity, worry, guilt, and confusion. They may think the loved one will return, and wonder what would happen if their other caregiver(s) dies. They may think that their thoughts have the power to cause things to happen, so they may believe that they caused the death by having wished that the person were dead at one time. They take things quite literally, so don’t use metaphors to explain things.
Young children can develop magical stories about the death or what will happen to them. For example, a four year old might think that their mom literally lives on a cloud in heaven, and may worry that she will fall off if the clouds disappear. Young children may seek out situations that help them distinguish the real from imaginary, and can act out scenes of death or develop a fascination with dead things. They may be full of repetitive questions, or act like nothing happened. They might start acting younger than they really are (regress) and want to be held or fed like a baby, or talk in baby talk. Intense emotional outbursts, dreams, and fighting are common.
The important thing for kids this age is to be able to do all of this with support – help them identify feelings and have their routines and structure. Answer questions simply and truthfully, and let the child cry. Don’t worry about the behaviors – as long as it’s safe. Involve them as much as possible in the mourning rituals (but don’t force).
Six to Nine Years: Kids this age are beginning to understand that death is final, and may have a lot of preoccupation with the details as they sort out the biology of death. They may think that their thoughts or actions caused the death, and are starting to ask spiritual questions and form spiritual ideas. A really common thing is to act as if the death never happened, to hide feelings, or be withdrawn. They can also regress. Nightmares and fears of others dying, acting out, and poor grades are common. They worry about what will happen to them if a parent or other loved one dies.
Complex emotions such as anger, guilt, fear, confusion, loneliness, worry, and withdrawal are likely to be present. Encourage art, drama, pretend play, dance, sports. Encourage the child to express their emotions however they can (verbally, through art, etc) without pushing or buying into the notion that they are over it because they seem fine. Be physical with hugs, and don’t discourage their regressing or questions. Work with the school to make sure they get support and have an appropriate workload.
If the child has any of these symptoms for a long time, or has persistent depression, sleep or eating issues, withdrawal, or major school issues, seek professional help. A counselor/therapist can help the child come to accept the death and heal.