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The Grieving Process: Discussing It With Children

One of the most difficult tasks following the death of a loved one is discussing and explaining the death with other children in the family. This task is even more distressing when the parents are in the midst of their own grief.

Since many adults have problems dealing with death they assume that children also cannot cope with it. Parents may try to protect other children by leaving them out of the discussions and rituals associated with the death. Thus, children may feel anxious, bewildered, and alone. The children may be left on their own to seek answers to their questions at a time when they most need the help and assurance of those around them.
All children will be affected in some way by a death in the family. Above all, those children who are too young for explanations need love from the significant people in their lives to maintain their own security. Young children may not verbalize their feelings about a death in a family and may hold back their feelings. In reality they may be so overwhelmed that they may appear to be unaffected. It is common for them to express their feelings through behaviour and play. Regardless of this ability or inability to express themselves, children "do" grieve, often very deeply.

Some Common Expressions of Children's Grief

Experts have determined that those in grief pass through four major emotions: Fear, Anger, Guilt and Sadness. It should be remembered that everyone who is touched by a death experiences these emotions to some degree -- grandparents, friends, physicians, nurses and children. Each adult and child's reaction to death are individual in nature. Some common reactions are:

    1. Shock

The child may not believe the death really happened and will act as though it did not. This is usually because the thought of death is too overwhelming.

    2. Physical Symptoms

The child may have various complaints such as headaches or a stomachache and fear that he too will die.

    3. Anger

Being mostly concerned with his own needs, the child may be angry at the person who died because he feels he has been left "all alone" or that God didn't "make the person well."

    4. Guilt

The child may think that he caused the death by having been angry with the person who died, or he may feel responsible for not having been "better" in some way.

    5. Anxiety and Fear

The child may wonder who will take care of him now or fear that some other person he loves will die. He may cling to his parents or ask other people who play an important role in his life if "they love him".

    6. Regression

The child may revert to behaviors he had previously outgrown, such as bed wetting or thumb sucking.

    7. Sadness

The child may show a decrease in activity -- being "too quiet." It is important to remember that all of the reactions outlined above are normal expressions of grief in children. In the grieving process, time is an important factor. Experts have said that six months after a significant death in a child's life, normal routine should be resuming. If the child's reaction seems to be prolonged, seeking professional advice of those who are familiar with the child (e.g., teachers, pediatricians, clergy) may be helpful.

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