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What does your child know about death?

Death is a common theme in cartoons and movies, therefore it might not be a foreign theme in your child’s life. Having a vague understanding about death and experiencing it first hand is different, and can be a confusing and turbulent time for children. This is worsened by cartoons that show characters who die and come back to life again, creating a false impression that death is reversible.

The pain of loss, grief and sadness is a common emotion that adults can relate to when it comes to death, but oftentimes we may forget that children tend to experience additional feelings of confusion and fear. This is exacerbated by the often foreign emotions they are experiencing, thus making it a rather disorienting experience.

Sheltering your child from the pain of loss is like fighting a losing battle – death is inevitable and is part and parcel of life. Instead, equipping your child with the skills necessary to cope can help them feel safe and secure.

Death can be a daunting topic to tackle, however by allowing them to understand their emotions and validating their fears, you can help build healthy coping skills that allow them to deal with grief appropriately.

Children grieve differently

Children may express grief in different ways from adults – similarly, they may respond to death in different ways depending on their age and personalities.

Young children between 2 to 4 years typically see death as temporary and reversible  – they may not have an adequate understanding of what death means or it’s permanence. Sometimes, they blame themselves for the death of their loved ones, and mistakenly assume they have done something to cause the death. Your child may seem unbothered about the passing or even experience severe mood swings (from crying to wanting to play). They may also ask the same questions repeatedly  – it’s understandably frustrating, but remember to be patient and reassuring.

Ψ Expressions of grief: Regression to earlier behaviours (wetting the bed, sucking thumb), sleep problems, irritability and confusion

Ψ How to help: Following an established routine, coupled with lots of care, love and reassurance will be helpful. Play may be an outlet for grieving at this age.

Children between the ages of 5 to 7 start to grasp the concept of death, but may have an innocent perception that they and their loved ones are not susceptible to death, that is, it will never happen to them or anyone they know.

Ψ Expressions of grief: Nightmares, regressions to earlier behaviours, violent play

Ψ How to help: Encourage the expression of emotions through symbolic play or talking about the person who passed.

Children between the ages of 7 to 13 may be overly fearful of sickness and injuries because they do not have a full understanding of how death works and why people die. They may want to believe death as reversible, but are beginning to understand the finality in death.

Ψ Expressions of grief: Regression, school issues, social issues, acting out, changes in sleeping and eating habits, thoughts about their own death

Ψ How to help: Explain to them that death may occur because of serious illness or injuries. Reassure them that death will not occur to them till a long time later.

As children grow older (13 years and up), it is important for parents to support and educate them on death and how to process and cope with loss. Teenagers are capable of understanding more abstract concepts, and thus have a better comprehension of the concept of death.

Ψ Expressions of grief: Extreme sadness or anger, denial, regression, risk taking, acting out, suicidal thoughts

Ψ How to help: Be present, and give them space to process their emotions, above all, encourage the expression of feelings!

Your child may feel immediate grief following the death of the loved one, but also have a belief that the loved one is still alive. This is normal weeks after the passing, however if persists beyond that, can be emotionally unhealthy and lead to more severe issues. Additionally, be observant of your child’s behaviours, especially if your child is unable to cope with grief and loss, they may suffer from adjustment disorder. Adjustment disorder occurs as a reaction to a painful or stressing event, the reaction to the event being excessive to what would be expected1. The reaction also significantly interferes with social, occupational and educational functioning. During times of loss, it may be especially difficult to have the bandwidth to deal with both your own grief along with your child’s.

Should your child struggle to cope with these complex emotions for a lengthy amount of time, do seek help from a child psychologist for support .

For more advice on how to help support a child through loss and grief, check out the resources at Annabelle Kids