What do young children understand about death?
It can be devastating losing a parent or loved one at any age and it is especially difficult for young children as they do not understand the concept of permanence and have limited language skills to enable them to understand and express their feelings. Separation from the people we love can be one of the most distressing events of our lives and for a young child it can be both overwhelming and terrifying. Up to approximately four years of age, children’s awareness of death may be limited. They will be aware of the changes, pick up the feelings of others and know that their sense of security has been shaken. They will notice that person is absent but may be unable to make sense of what is happening, they will just know that the person is missing.
It is important to remember that a young child may not comprehend the concept of death and they may not respond initially to hearing that someone has died. When a person is gone and then still gone and then doesn’t come back, a child may grieve at each moment when he or she feels the person’s absence. The child will miss the specific elements of the person such as their voice, smell and activities experienced together. A child missing the person who has died will not necessarily be as a result of being told the person is dead.
How may a child respond to death
A child’s reactions to a death depends on a number of factors, such as how close they were to the person who has died and how involved they were in their lives, whether the death was sudden or traumatic and how the other members of the family are dealing with their grief. The remaining parent may be less emotionally available as they are processing their own grief, and this can have an impact on the child as they experience another form of loss.
It is helpful to respond to the child’s reactions in a reassuring and sympathetic manner. They may be unsettled and clingy, particularly to the other parent as they may worry that they will lose them too. They may struggle to manage even small changes to their routine.
They may develop irrational fears about new things such as the dark, spiders etc. They may have difficulty eating, have disrupted sleep patterns or nightmares. They may regress to an earlier stage of development such as soiling, bed wetting, thumb sucking, tantrums or using a babyish voice. They may also get upset more easily, cry more frequently and be anxious and withdrawn. These are all indicators that the child is trying to make sense of what has happened and is working through their feelings.
What does a bereaved child need?
Adults can sometimes try and protect children from the pain of knowing what has happened, but this can lead to distress and confusion later, so it is best to be as open and honest as possible from the start. It can be helpful to say something like “Her body stopped working and when that happens the person dies, no one can keep living without their body.” Their questions need to be answered simply and honestly. Avoid euphemisms such as “went to sleep” etc as this can be confusing and lead to fear for the child of anyone going to sleep. Children may ask questions repetitively and this will require acceptance and patience as it is an important part of their grieving process. Young children believe that they cause what happens around them and they may worry that they caused the death by misbehaving. This “magical thinking” may result in them believing they can bring the dead person back E.g. “If I eat all my peas mummy will come back.”
Children need models of how to grieve and how it is natural to cry when you lose someone you love. Seeing adults upset about the loss of someone can normalize the child’s feelings and their wish to cry. Attending a funeral can be healing for a child and can also be a vital method of closure for them, even if they do not fully understand what is happening. Children need the opportunity to remember and talk about the person who has died, both after the death and throughout their life. If a child is finding it difficult to speak then they can be encouraged to draw pictures. This is particularly useful for younger children who may not have the ability to put their feelings into words.
It is important to consider the messages that young children are receiving about the person who has died, if they think “I can’t talk about daddy because it will make mummy cry”, then this will have a detrimental effect on their grieving process. Once children accept the death, they may show their feelings of sadness, anger and anxiety 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 they can show their feelings openly, without fear of upsetting others.
Young children do not have the language skills to express how they feel and they show us what they want and feel through their behaviour. When working with a child that is experiencing a bereavement, it is essential that the rest of their life and daily routine is as consistent as possible to provide them with a sense of security and stability. The changes in behaviour they may show need to be responded to with empathy, support and understanding during this stressful time while the child tries to adjust to the huge absence in their life. Any changes that do take place at nursery need to be explained to the child clearly with plenty of notice and reassurance.
As children get older they begin to understand the concept of death and with each developmental stage comes a different understanding. Children can be helped to make a memory box or book to remind them of the parent and can help them to stay connected to that person. Children have incredible resilience and the impact of a bereavement early in their lives will depend on the other support they have around them. We need to remember that we do not “get over” an important death in our lives. We learn to live with it, accept it and go on with our lives in a meaningful way.