When someone close to a child dies, children will have reactions that differ from adults. This is due to their stage of development. For example, children under the age of 4 usually see death as temporary and reversible ` a belief reinforced by cartoon characters who "die" but then "come back to life again". Children between 5 and 9 begin to think more like adults about death, yet they may still believe it will never happen to them or anyone they know.
Parents should be aware of normal childhood responses to death and should also know when they need to be concerned about their child`s response. Professionals who work in the field believe that it is quite natural for children to feel grief and even act as though the person is still alive for a few weeks after the death. But if the child seems to avoid dealing with the death or if the denial continues for a long time, this is considered unhealthy and could result in more serious problems later on.
A child may not want to attend the formal funeral service, and the child should not be forced to go. Instead the parents could spend time with the child and come up with their own "service", which could include lighting a candle, singing a song, writing a letter or remembering stories of the person who has died.
Once children accept the death, they are likely to display their feelings of sadness periodically for a long time. There may be natural events that remind the child of the person (birthday, special occasion, favourite spots or songs or activities), or there may be some unexpected moments as well. Parents should let the child know that it is natural to feel sad and to express this sadness openly and freely.
Any person who dies in a child`s life affects the stability of the child`s world, and anger is a natural reaction. The anger could surface in boisterous play, nightmares, irritability or a variety of other behaviours. The child may show anger toward other people that they have previously had a positive relationship with.
It is also possible that the child may act younger than they are. Perhaps the child will want to play with things that they haven`t played with in a long time, or look for that favourite doll or stuffed animal. They may need more cuddling and attention.
Young children often believe they are the cause of what happens around them. So a young child may take responsibility for the death of a family member because at one time they "wished they were dead" or perhaps they had been angry at the person. This could result in the child feeling guilty for their thoughts and about the person dying.
Some danger signs to watch for:
- An extended period of sadness in which the child loses interest in daily activities and events.
- Inability to sleep, loss of appetite, prolonged fear of being alone.
- Acting much younger than they are for a long period of time.
- Stating that they want to join the dead person
- Withdrawal from friends or activities that they previously enjoyed
- Drop in school performance and/or attendance.
These warning signs indicate that professional help may be needed. You may want to contact the School Social Worker to talk about the best way of getting help. Bereaved Families of Ontario is an excellent community resource. The Hospital for Sick Children, Social Work Pages, also have helpful hints in supporting children who have lost a sibling.
Content of this article is partially derived from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.