Children in Grief

Every year thousands of children face bereavement, perhaps through the death of a friend, a sibling, a grandparent, a parent.  It is sometimes the case that adult family members who are experiencing their own grief miss noticing the feelings and behaviours of the children involved.  It can be often assumed that children are ‘resilient’ or ‘brave’ or are not old enough to fully understand what is going on; however, nothing is further from the truth.  I have known of situations where children were sent away to stay with an aunt and returned several days after the burial.  These children were not allowed to see the remains of the deceased person (parent, grandparent, sibling) and, on their return, dare not mention the deceased person’s name.  A not untypical response in the case of young children (under five years) is to tell them that ‘Daddy has gone away, but he’ll come back again’.  Sometimes, these children shockingly discover the truth from another child – but this can be a number of years later.  In the meantime, the child has undergone untold feelings of rejection and a different form of grief – ‘why did Daddy leave me without saying goodbye.’  It is often the case that the child will not believe his peer or, indeed, may become aggressive or violent towards the other child.  The reason for this reaction is that the child is not in any way ready to absorb the reality of his parent’s death.

Very often adults agonise over what to say to children and frequently this can result in them saying nothing.  The most important response is to tell children the truth; do not underestimate children’s ability to understand.  The truth needs to be given simply and clearly, accompanied by love, sympathy and the support to bear the loss.  It is often necessary to repeat the information because, like adults, children may not ‘take in’ the bad news on the first or second hearing.  In any case, children need to be given opportunities and space to return to the sad subject in their own time and at their own pace.  This revisiting process may take weeks or months or even years.  The wisest time to be honest with children is when inevitably they ask the mind-bending question: ‘Where has Mammy gone?; Will I see her again?’  Again, integrity and truth are paramount.  ‘Where has Mammy gone’ can only be answered from the belief system of the person being questioned.  Those with no Christian beliefs may talk about life cycle and how Mammy lives in the hearts and minds of those who loved her.  Those with religious beliefs may talk about heaven or a new life.  Adults need to be aware that children seem to require no more information than they ask at the one time.  Be wary of long-winded responses.

The extent and endurance of a child’s grief, say, for a grandparent or parent, will depend largely on the quality of the relationship that had existed between them.  For example, a child may be far more deeply bereaved by the death of his mother with whom he had very close ties than by the death of a father who is absent or rarely interacted with him.  Clearly, the quality of relationships experienced by the child with the remaining parent or guardians also will influence the course of the child’s grief.  What children who are bereaved need are quality relationships that provide the ongoing unconditional love and security for them to cope with the loss and to progress with living their own lives.

When a child loses a parent, a situation that is frequently missed is the relationship that existed between the parents and how that can influence the child’s grieving response.  Where there is conflict between the parents, a child may ‘side’ with one of the parents and, of course, the loss of that parent is far more distressing and threatening than the loss of the other parent.  The child may fear the parent who has survived may now ‘take it out’ on him because he formed a coalition with the deceased parent.

Certainly, the biggest blow any child can experience is to lose a mother or father; it changes the whole family dynamic.  Children in such circumstances can cleverly try to restore equilibrium: girls by attempting to be the perfect ‘mother’, boys by trying to become the perfect ‘father’.  This needs to be accepted as the coping mechanism it is, but gradually the child needs to be eased-out of being the substitute parent and helped to rediscover their own childhood and their own needs.  When this situation is not redressed, children who have adopted the deceased parent’s role may find it extremely difficult to accept the surviving parent wanting to remarry.  Indeed, later on as an adult, this child may find it difficult to be fully committed to their own marriage.  In such circumstances, professional guidance may be required.

One of the most common (but unspoken) fears that young children experience is guilt.  They feel that somehow they have been the cause of the death.  Patently, the reassurance that ‘it is not your fault’ will be visible in as much from how adults treat the child as from anything they say, but the perfectionism that some young children develop in order to never ‘cause’ another death needs considerable and enduring loving attention until this guilt is resolved.

Finally, grief is not simply a matter of words.  It is not expressed only in words and it is not resolved just in words.  Grief goes far deeper than that.  Sometimes, it is acted out in behaviour which can be alarming for parents and teachers.  There can be outbursts of anger, rage, swings of mood, withdrawal, looking ‘lost’.  All of these are common grief responses – just as they are in adults who are grieving.  What is required is for adults to allow children to express these powerful feelings in a way that they do not hurt themselves or others.  Children need to know that anger is wise.  They need the assurance that sadness does not last forever even though it can come in waves and sometimes we do not know the waves are coming.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author of All About Children, Questions Parents Ask.