By Margie Wagner & Callie Little, Child Development Media, www.childdevelopmentmedia.com, reprinted with permission
It goes without saying that the grieving process is a complicated and intensely personal one. It is difficult enough for adults to deal with the loss of a loved one, but it can be even more difficult for children, particularly if their adult caregivers are working through their own grief. Understanding how grief affects children at various developmental stages and knowing the best ways to assist children as they grieve can help children to process their grief in the most healthy way possible. Keep in mind that, while grief is usually associated with a death, there are many circumstances under which children grieve. Separation due to the dissolution of a relationship or due to a military deployment or job-related separation can also cause grief in children.
Reactions to Loss and How to Help
How old a child is at the time of loss certainly affects the child’s perception of the event. Although babies are unable to express themselves verbally, they will certainly exhibit reactions to loss. They may seem more fussy, inconsolable, or have changes in their eating and sleeping patterns. Very young children, ages 2 to 4, are egocentric: they think the world revolves around them, and their concept of death is limited. They may think that death is reversible, and their main reactions to death may be that their daily routine and care are altered. The adult whom they have lost, or who is also grieving, will be either absent or unable to care for the child in the accustomed manner. At this age, reactions are often regressive, exhibiting themselves in eating, sleeping, or toileting disruptions. Children this age need reassurance and consistency. Try to maintain regular routines and to be comforting, giving hugs and kisses and lots of gentle touches. Keep the discussions of death short, but keep interactions with the child frequent. Even if you feel like the baby or young child cannot understand your words, they will understand your interest in their feelings and your wish to console them. Keep talking – it will help you to get used to the discussions that will become longer and more detailed as the child gets older, and it will help you to figure out what to say.