When a family member dies, children react differently from adults. Preschool children usually see death as temporary and reversible, a belief reinforced by cartoon characters that “die” and “come to life” again. Children may not understand the meaning of death until they are around three or four years old. Children between five and nine begin to think more like adults about death, yet they still believe it will never happen to them or anyone they know. They do still feel the loss and shock of close relatives in the same way as adults. Infants and children can grieve and feel great distress.
Children may have a different experience of time to that of adults, so may go through their stages of mourning more rapidly. In their early school years, children may feel responsible for the death of a close relative and may need to be reassured. They may not speak of their grief because they think they might be adding an extra burden to the adults around them. The grief of children and adolescents should not be overlooked when a member of the family dies. They should, if appropriate, be included in the funeral arrangements.
Adding to a child’s shock and confusion at the death of a brother, sister, or parent is the unavailability of other family members, who may be so shaken by grief that they are not able to cope with the normal responsibility of child care, however, death is not the only loss of a family member is not the only loss that children may face today. There may also be parental divorce or imprisonment. Children will see on the television and via the internet, some of the violent and appalling things that happen in the world. This will make them aware of death in a way that may not have been experienced by previous generations.
Children naturally assume that the world is safe and full of kindness. They will try to answer questions, such as who am I? Why am I here? This safety can disappear if a child begins to feel that the world is not a nice place. Children may feel that adults may not be able to protect them. This may cause them to “act out” inappropriate behaviour and older children might engage in self-destructive behaviours with drugs, sex or drinking etc. Not all children will respond in this way.
Parents should be aware of normal childhood responses to a death in the family, as well as signs when a child is having difficulty coping with grief. According to child and adolescent psychiatrists, it is normal during the weeks following the death for some children to feel immediate grief or persist in the belief that the family member is still alive, however, long term denial of the death or avoidance of grief can be emotionally unhealthy and can later lead to more severe problems. Once children accept the death, they are likely to display their feelings of sadness on and off over a long period of time, and often at unexpected moments. The surviving relatives should spend as much time as possible with the child, making it clear that the child has permission to show his or her feelings openly or freely.
The person who has died was essential to the stability of the child’s world, and anger is a natural reaction.
The anger may be revealed in boisterous play, nightmares, irritability, or a variety of other behaviours. Often the child will show anger towards the surviving family members. Children may also temporarily revert to a previous stage of their development when they felt safer. After a parent dies, many children will act younger than they are. The child may temporarily become more infantile; demand food, attention and cuddling; and talk “baby talk.”
Younger children frequently believe they are the cause of what happens around them. A young child may believe a parent, grandparent, brother, or sister died because he or she had once “wished” the person dead when they were angry. The child feels guilty or blames him or herself because the wish “came true.”
When family’s breakdown due to divorce, separation or bereavement, it can have a range of effects on the children. Amato (1994) found that adults who had experienced a divorce in their childhood had more behavioural problems, less education, a lower standard of living, lower job status, lower psychological wellbeing and a greater risk of being a single parent.