Between the rough and tumble of early life, we soon find that children are more resilient than we think. Yet when it comes to a hurdle as big as death, our instincts might just be to carry them away from it all and to shield them from the enormity of the loss.
Years ago, this was very much the norm if a young child experienced the death of a loved one. No doubt people’s hearts were very much in the right place, and these actions come from a protective and loving instinct.
Yet experts believe that confronting the situation head on with the unadorned truth is a better start on a child’s grief journey.
Theresa Kavanagh is a support worker at the Limerick-based Children’s Grief Centre, who provide a listening service to children and young adults experiencing the death of a loved one, parental separation or other form of grief.
“It’s quite amazing how parents feel they’re protecting their child when they don’t allow them to participate in rituals like wakes or funerals, but a child has the right to say goodbye to the person they love,” she notes. “Children need, want and deserve the truth. Children are so perceptive. It’s amazing how much they know and how strong they can be,” she says. “I’ve heard of children being told that ‘Mammy is asleep’, while another little girl was told that her granny went on holidays and never came back. The problem is that younger children go into magical thinking and make things up. If they’re sent away in the event of a death, or not talked to properly, they will always blame themselves, even if the death is from something like cancer.
“I remember one young boy’s mother died of an accidental drug overdose, and he said, ‘I thought it happened because I was bold’. That’s why it’s so important to have open conversations, and also to validate how they themselves feel.”
Often, this can be easier said than done for adults who are also forging their own journey of grief and coping with loss. Often, it can be the first time that a parent or guardian finds themselves in that situation, so it’s entirely natural that uncertainty would reign.
“If a parent can express how they feel, it’s important to say ‘it’s sad, but I’m a grown up and I can look after myself’,” notes Kavanagh. “It’s interesting, a lot of parents haven’t dealt with their grief before they come to the centre, and it’s only when they’re here that they realise that. Parents and children seeking help at the same time can really help the healing process.”
Ann D’Arcy is a Senior Social Worker and Bereavement Coordinator at Our Lady’s Hospice and Care Services, Dublin, who has been offering workshops for bereaved children and their guardians for 14 years.
She notes that the grief journey for children is very different to that of adults.
“A child can’t sustain the depths of emotional pain for the same lengths of time,” she explains. “One minute they are talking about death, the next they’re back on their bikes or PlayStation as if nothing happened. But that doesn’t mean they’re not grieving.
“A very little child may listen to this and run off, and a parent might think they either didn’t take it all in, or the conversation is done, but with a young child developmentally, they’ll find it difficult to understand permanency,” explains D’Arcy. “They’ll often keep coming back to ask the same questions over and over again, trying to make sense of it. It’s important to remember you didn’t do it wrong in the first place. They will just need to talk about it over and over again to understand. It’s important to give a child the space, and permission, to grieve however they might like.
“We need to remember that grieving is normal, and most children are going to feel sad, angry and lonely. You might find that many children will express that physically — they’ll be more tired or experience tummy pains or headaches. Some regress to a younger age,” notes D’Arcy.
“The other thing that often happens is that they are terrified of losing their surviving family member. Most of the children I meet will want to ‘protect’ their surviving family members, and often won’t tell them how they really feel for that reason.”
Death really is the ultimate wrong-footer, and for that reason, grieving children often need to be grounded with certainties.
“Children need information on what happened around the death, but also reassurance that their meals will be given to them, school will still be there, and people will still love them,” says D’Arcy.
Offering children some sense of control over the situation offers them a valuable coping skill: “For one child, talking and looking at old photos is really important, for another, it’s too much and they don’t want to have that reminder in every room. It’s about negotiating that,” says D’Arcy. “Give the child a choice on whether they would like to view the body, and how they would like the loss to be acknowledged. Do they want something said in class for instance, or would they rather it wasn’t mentioned? Will they want to participate in Father’s Day?”
When discussing death or loss with children of all ages, the expert advice to do away with euphemisms and explain the situation in clear language.
“It’s always about giving very factual information to a child, and that’s why we recommend using words like ‘dead’ or ‘death’ and to explain what they mean,” observes D’Arcy. “It’s a very abstract concept for a child. Explain to them that when a person dies, they no longer feel anything. They’re no longer thirsty, cold, hungry, in pain, sad. It may look like a person is asleep, but the body stops working and the heart stops working.
“Be very, very concrete. Coming from a faith perspective, some people will believe the soul or spirit has gone to heaven, but just remember that young children will see that as a concrete place, and will probably ask when they can visit, or why the person won’t come back.
“If a child is seeing their loved one’s body, explain beforehand that their body might feel cold, and look a little different than usual,” adds D’Arcy.
Conversations for very young children need to be similarly concrete, though it may take them more time to assimilate the enormity of the situation. “If a child is asking the questions, it’s important to give the honest answer, really,” surmises D’Arcy. “It’s better to have had that conversation from someone they love, rather than hearing it in the school playground.”
For more information on child bereavement workshops/services at Our Lady’s Hospice and Care Services, see olh.ie. The Children’s Grief Centre is running a fundraiser on September 13; see childrensgriefcentre.ie
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