How do we help children grieve when someone dies?
Written by Gayle Starling Melvin
Grandpa Leroy Plummer holds grandaughter Mercedes Davis, in 1990. Davis family photo
Mercedes and Blake Davis lost their grandpa just four days before Christmas, 1999. Mercedes was 14 and Blake was 8. Their parents had prepared them for his death by answering their questions truthfully and realistically.
"I knew it was coming," says Mercedes. "Grandpa was in hospice, and my mother had told me everything about hospice. But it was still hard when I found out from my father that he had died."
It was equally hard for Blake. "My best memory of my grandpa was how he would pull me around the block in my red wagon," he says. "I was only three or four, but I will never forget it."
Both children attended the funeral Mass for their grandfather.
Children can face many of the same types of loss as their adult counterparts, says Amy Baur, a licensed clinical therapist at UCC-related Lifelink in Bensenville, Ill.
In addition to death of a loved one, children can be subjected to loss if they are abandoned (e.g., placed in foster homes), their parents divorce or one becomes ill, the family moves to a new neighborhood or a parent changes employment.
Eric Sutter's whole world, as he knew it, changed when he was 10 years old. His mother, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, was confined first to a wheelchair, then eventually to a hospital bed in the family's dining room.
"He blamed his mother for the way she was," says Eric's grandmother. "When he couldn't bear it anymore, he took a pair of scissors and cut up all of his mother's clothing. He told me, 'She won't need them anymore.' This was his way of handling the loss of his mother as 'he once knew her.'"
When a child suffers a loss, routine is the path of healing, says Baur.
"Consistency and routine mean safety," she says. "Everyday activities are essential to a child's grieving process. Children should stick to whatever they would do normally, thereby maintaining their routine." Parents or other adult guardians need to "pick up the slack and provide structure and safety so the child's life can go on," Baur says.
Like adults, children go through the normal stages of grief: denial and shock, anger, depression, bargaining, guilt, anxiety and, ultimately, acceptance.
When a loved one dies, says Baur, the children should be allowed to go to the funeral. They need the funeral ritual, Baur says, to have a sense of finality. The funeral also allows them to see how others are dealing with the same loss.
For the most part, children who have endured a traumatic experience—such as the death of a parent, grandparent, sibling or even the family pet—can be pretty resilient. But many children and adolescents grieve just as much as—if not more than—their adult counterparts when the reality of death and loss intrudes upon their world.
To aid others in helping children deal with grief, Lifelink offers a speaker's bureau topic on the issue to communicate the differences between the thought processes of children and adults during times of grief and loss.
Baur says that before parents can attempt to explain a loss to their child, they must first have a clear realization of their own feelings of grief and loss.
"Children have a different understanding of death," says Baur. "Any reaction by the parent will have a major impact on their perceptions of grief and loss. Helping children identify their feelings will assist them in understanding that death or loss, however unpleasant, is a reality of life."
Younger children also view death and loss differently than adolescents. "Little kids, whose first loss is usually a family pet or a grandparent, don't have a solid concept of death," says Baur. "They can't sustain heavier feelings and therefore respond by watching how other people around them are grieving. One minute, a child can be feeling depressed, and the next minute they're outside playing."
Older youth, Baur says, greet loss and death as unwelcome guests, having no control over their entrance.
"Teens don't have a sense of 'I can get through this,'" she says. "To them, it can be the end of the world."
Some adolescents may become suicidal when someone significant to them dies. Baur says parents need to watch for any significant or disturbing changes in their teen, and be prepared to seek professional help.
For more information on children and grief, contact Amy Baur or Christina L. Maggio at Lifelink, 630-521-8046, or visit Lifelink's website at www.lifelink.org.