Children of all ages are affected by a loss of a significant person in their lives. Izetta Smith from The Dougy Center has written, “We have seen that all children-as young as preschoolers, toddlers, and even infants-grieve the loss of a loved one” (1991, p. 170).
Most researchers believe that children, during the first years of life, have little or no understanding of death. Toddlers soon learn, however, that some things do not return; they are, “all-gone” (Grollman, 1967, p. 96).
Three- to five-year-olds “regard death as temporary and life-death as alternating states” (Grollman, 1967, p. 98). Cartoons on television and older children telling ghost stories help to reinforce their ideas.
Preschoolers tend to assume that they will not die. They believe that death is accidental rather than inevitable (Grollman, 1967, p. 100). Specific circumstances, such as being involved in accidents, becoming elderly, or going to the hospital are believed to cause death. These children try “to isolate those phenomena, which ‘mean’ or ’cause’ death” (Grollman, 1967, p. 101).
After five years of age, children gradually understand “that death is final, inevitable, universal, and personal” (Grollman, 1967, p. 101).
Most ten-year-olds understand that death is an irreversible and inescapable part of life.
Explaining Death to a Child
When talking about death with a child, parents should explain that death means that life stops, the deceased cannot return, and the body is buried. They should also explain their religious beliefs concerning these matters. Anything less simple and explicit often causes confusion and misinterpretation. Covering death over with fiction or half-truths may increase children’s fears in the future and lead to mistrust of family members. However, children’s fears may be lessened when the death discussion is focused not on morbid details but on the beauty of life.
Possible Reactions of Children to Death
The death of a parent is a traumatic loss in a child’s life. Different children cope in different ways. Possible reactions and children’s statements that may or may not appear include:
- Denial –“I don’t believe it.”
- Bodily distress –“I can’t breathe;” “I can’t sleep.”
- Hostile reactions to the deceased –“Didn’t he care enough for me to stay alive?”
- Guilt –“She got sick because I was naughty. I killed her!”
- Hostile reactions to others –“It is the doctor’s fault. He didn’t treat him right.”
- Replacement –“Uncle Ben, do you love me, really love me?”
- Assumption of mannerisms of deceased –“Do I look like Mommy?”
- Idealization –“How dare you say anything against Daddy! He was perfect.”
- Anxiety –“I feel like Mommy when she died. I have a pain in my chest.”
- Panic –“Who will take care of me now?” (Grollman, 1967, pp. 18-20).
If parents are concerned about how their children are reacting, they should consult a pediatrician or professional counselor.
Community Social Support
Social support of children is crucial following the death of a loved one. In coping with his or her own grief, the surviving parent may have difficulty providing emotional support and physical nurturing to his or her children when they need it most.
Many community resources are available to help families. Ministers, priests, or rabbis can help families with spiritual concerns. School guidance counselors and teachers should know of resources to help children. Support groups may also be available within schools or communities. Librarians can suggest quality books for parents to read alone or with their children. Many hospice organizations also have excellent reading materials.
Although no two individuals will have identical experiences, research provides clues to reactions that might be expected. The best advice for parents is to live with children during the good times in such a way that when difficult times come, the family will be able to withstand the upheaval.