Many children will experience the death of a loved one before reaching adulthood. Grandparents, aunts, uncles or even a parent may pass away while the child is still young.
In some instances,the death of a loved one may occur suddenly. However, in the case of an elderly grandparent, impending death may be a process that provides children and their families the ability to grieve before the loved one dies.
Regardless of the way in which the loss of a loved one occurs, the situation will have significant implications for the emotional health of the child. As such, parents and caregivers must be aware of these issues and respond to them in a manner that facilitates coping and healing.
Preparing children for the death of a loved one can be a challenging process; one that requires caregivers to understand how children comprehend and respond to death and loss. In helping prepare children for the loss of a loved one, parents and caregivers must take into consideration two pertinent variables: the age of the child and the family environment.
In general, the age of the child at the time of the loved one’s death will impact how the child perceives the situation and how he or she responds. While the child age will have implications for the child’s response to a loss, all caregivers should consider the family environment to recognize that support provided to a child at any stage in development can be helpful for improving coping and healing.
Although a basic foundation for love and support will be essential to helping children prepare for the impending death and loss of a loved one who is still alive, as well as the sudden loss of someone important to them, the type of support and communication provided by caregivers should be contingent upon the age and level of maturity of the child. With this in mind, here is some advice for helping children of different ages cope with and understand the loss of a loved one.
Ages 2-4: Those in this age range will react more to the immediate loss of the loved one and reactions of others than to the reality that the loved one will never return. Children in this stage of development are not often able to comprehend what death means. Even though these children will feel a distinct loss, they may not understand their feelings. At this stage of development, caregivers need to reassure children that they will never be alone and will always have someone to love them, even though the deceased family member may not return.
Ages 5-8: Children in this age group often have misconceptions about death and may believe that they are responsible for a loved one’s death. Caregivers need to reassure children that death is a natural process and one over which children do not have control. Honest answers about death will be important for children to grasp the concept and know that they are not responsible. Support and reassurance from family members will be needed on a continuing basis as children may take several months to process and understand the loss.
Ages 9-12: Children between the ages of 9 and 12 have a concrete understanding of the finality of death. Because of this understanding and the emotional pain that accompanies the reality of the loss, children may choose not to talk about the issue and may instead grieve in silence and cope in their own unique way. Caregivers should not pressure children in this age group to talk about death or their feelings, rather they should allow the child space and freedom to raise the subject and then attempt to communicate about the issue. However, stay attuned to the child and give indirect support to keep them aware of your love and empathy for whatever they are feeling at the time.
Teenagers: Due to their maturity, teenagers may question some of the larger issues involved in death, including a family’s religious faith. These larger issues will provide the teen with an opportunity to understand death in a more abstract manner; one that may promote long-term resolve, greater understanding about life, and love and reassurance. A child’s age and level of maturity can serve as a guide for how best to reach your child and help him or her cope, adjust and grieve appropriately with the loss of a loved one.
Dr. Clatch practices at the Courage to Connect Therapeutic Center, 2400 Ravine Way, Suite 600, Glenview. For more info, call 847-347-5757 or visit couragetoconnecttherapy.com.