Grief is a mix of distressing feelings, thoughts, and sensations experienced when someone important to us dies. For young and old alike, sharing these thoughts and feelings is important in processing grief.
First and foremost, a good caregiver is trustworthy and a good listener. A good caregiver is a companion who listens more than talks; hugs instead of advises, reassures instead of pressures. They avoid the tendency to minimize loss. A good caregiver doesn’t say, “Grandpa lived a good long life”, “Grandpa was so sick, it’s a blessing”, or, “Grandpa is in a better place now”. They know such well-meaning advice takes from the child what they need most – the validity of their thoughts and feelings and the chance to share them with others.
As the primary caregiver, don’t feel you, “must be strong” for the children. Your apparent lack of emotion can be very disturbing to them. It’s alright for your children to see you sad; it gives them permission to be sad. As long as you can provide love and support, it’s okay to do so in tears.
You cannot shield a child from death, anymore than you can shield them from life. Be honest from the start.
Children ask direct, poignant questions. Short explanations, delivered at the child’s level of understanding are best. “Your grandmother died. That means her body stopped working”, is an example of a short, honest answer. Questions will follow, and they can be answered as simply, honestly and as compassionately as possible. Philosophical theories an adult would require may be of little consequence and unnecessary, depending on the child’s level of understanding. Children will ask for as much information as they need, at the time. When they are ready for more information, they’ll ask for it.
Levels of Understanding Guidelines – actual ages may vary.
0 – 3 Infants have little to no cognitive understanding. They do however, experience separation anxiety. They have intuitive understanding. They can feel the difference.
3 – 5 For this developmental group, death is reversible, not final. For example, when a four-year old is angry, and, “wishes you were dead”, they don’t mean forever. They aren’t capable of understanding, “forever”. If the child says, “Grandpa’s coming back”, don’t agree, but don’t correct. There’s no need to impose your reality on the child. Eventually he or she will figure it out. It’s the dialogue and relationship that’s important!
Be aware of, “magical thinking”, in this period of development. They may believe they have magical powers and somehow caused the death. (by being bad, or having wished it, etc.) If that’s the case, they need reassured they are not responsible.
5 – 9 These children possess the capability to understand the finality of death. But, for them, death is not universal. Only old people and others die. Death may take on the shape of a human, the bogeyman or grim reaper.
They have been introduced to abstract thinking at school. So, they may be very curious, biologically. “What happens to his body, after death?”
These children have been introduced to religious beliefs as well. But, mostly, “concrete thinking”, marks this age of development. Everything is taken literally. The funeral home could easily be confused with heaven, without clarification. “Grandpa’s up in heaven looking down”, is meant to be reassuring. But for some children, it may give rise to an image of a spy, who knows everything you’re thinking and doing. The statement, “He was so good that God took him to live with him”, can lead to doubts about the value of being good and the kindness of God in taking away someone they love.
9 – on Death is final and universal. They are developing intellectually. “I could die.” Up to this point, they had been protected from such realizations.
Instead of saying, “Grandpa got sick and died”, it’s better to give a serious disease a real name – cancer. Otherwise, every cold may bring the fear of death along with it.
While religious concepts are of the utmost importance to adults, children are often preoccupied with more immediate and practical concerns. “Who will take care of me if you die, mom and dad?” Reassure the child that most people live a very long time. You can also point out all the people who love them and are there to take care of them.
It is important to help children understand death; otherwise they’ll explain it with the help of outside influences and their own immature equipment. These explanations are often much scarier than reality.
Should children go to the funeral home?
Once you’ve shared with children what they will experience at the funeral home, if they want to go, they should be permitted. Sadness can be managed in the midst of love, closeness and support. But, feelings of exclusion can be harder to deal with, and can even lead to a sense of rejection.
In preparation for their visit, tell them what they’ll see. “A funeral home is a place to say goodbye. Lots of people will come. Sometimes the people will be sad and crying, and that’s okay. Your grandfather will be there in a casket. A casket looks like a little bed in a box. There will be lots of flowers, sent by grandpa’s friends. They sent flowers as a way of saying that grandpa was important to them and that they care about us, too.”
Take them to the funeral home after you’ve had your first visitation, but before a crowd arrives. You’ll be better prepared to care for them and get them accustomed to their surroundings.
If you will be emotionally or physically unavailable for the child, have a supportive presence there with them.
Involve them in the funeral. Let them be honorary casket bearers. Ask them if they’d like to draw a picture or write a letter for their grandfather. Maybe they’d like to create a little book of memories for their grandmother to read. Even a small child can participate; they can pick out what they’ll wear to the service. They might place a rock from the farm in the casket to stay with grandpa.
Gauge discipline. Play and acting out are vital for grieving children. They are taking in small bits of this reality, dosing themselves with the experience, and then resting with play. When they are acting out, they are mourning in their own language.
Be patient. Adults often report that the strong emotions of grief last 2 to 3 years. Children’s grief last longer. This is because, as they develop, children come to new understandings about the death. They must then deal with these new understandings.
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