“Mum has gone away for a long time”
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1 in 20 Australian children will experience the death of a parent before the age of 18. Prior to reaching adulthood, many others will face the loss of a grandparent, sibling, cousin, aunt, uncle, friend or the family pet. Whilst some believe that a child cannot truly grieve until they reach adolescence, others such as British developmental psychologist John Bowlby (best known for Attachment Theory) suggest that infants as young as 6 months can experience grief reactions similar to that of adults.
Do children really understand death?
A young person’s ability to understand death depends on the age of the child and their cognitive development. If very young, they may not have a realistic understanding of time, particularly of “forever” or irreversibility and therefore the concept of death will be difficult to integrate. Prior to the loss, they may think that only old people die. Often the media portrays death as violent so they may have images of death that are inconsistent with reality.
In our modern Western culture, children are rarely given realistic information about death. They can be excluded from funerals and important rituals in an attempt to “protect” them. Adults may give the child vague explanations such as “mum has gone away for a long time”. Though well meaning, this can deprive young people of their own best means of managing pain and overcoming the effects of loss.
How do young people experience the death of a loved one?
Some of the most common ways that children and teens will experience death include: shock, denial, guilt, feelings of abandonment, anger, withdrawal, anxiety, depression, fear, phobias, numbness, insomnia, changes in eating patterns, underachievement, and truancy. Young children and adolescents who have suffered the loss of a parent reportedly experience more intense suffering than adults who experience the loss of a parent. For example, they experience more anger at the deceased, greater sleep disturbances and heightened dream activity, particularly nightmares and irritability.
Regardless of age, they will tend to have lower levels of school completion, lower levels of employment participation later in life and lower personal income as adults. There is also the potential for social, personal and relationship problems. In other words, young people are not only impacted by death in terms of their emotional and psychological wellbeing, but also in their economic and social success as adults.
Well intentioned adults and teachers can inadvertently interfere with the grieving process by avoiding the child’s questions or using diverting techniques. Trying to alleviate the pain can actually exacerbate the anxiety for the young person and lead to unresolved grief.
Caring adults may have suffered the same loss and shock (if the death was sudden) and be so preoccupied with their own grief and loss that they are unable to help the child. Subsequently, the child may feel that they have lost not only the deceased person but also the adults around them who they would normally look to for support.
How do children grieve?
Young people grieve in doses. They will break grief up into bearable amounts and these can manifest in intense outbursts. It’s likely that they will experience a multitude of emotions that may come and go in waves. Whilst they can seem out of character and unpredictable, this is a common response to grief. These responses can be heightened at milestones in the young person’s life such as birthdays or graduation, when they may feel the absence of the person more acutely.
In grief, children and teenagers tend to become an exaggerated version of their former selves. If they were very social before, they may become even more so and appear “shallow” to adults who see their social activities as inappropriate. If they were previously shy and withdrawn, they may become more so in grief. A heavy sense of responsibility is also very common. Normal symptoms of grief in children and adolescents will generally last for around 12 to 18 months, gradually improving over time. These include:
- Regression to bedwetting or thumb sucking
- Whining, crying or clinging to familiar adults
- Reduced ability to concentrate
- Major changes in eating and/or sleeping patterns
- Roller coaster ride of emotions – highs and lows
- Hyperactivity and “acting out”, temper tantrums or aggression
- Poor school grades, bad behavior in class
If after 18 months to 2 years, the young person is still showing either excessive feelings in response to frustrating experiences or showing no signs of distress at all to everyday setbacks, then they may have buried their grief and require extra help. Some of the warning signs include (but are not limited to):
- Chronic health problems
- Ongoing behavioral problems at home or in school
- Suicidal intention or fantasies, other than fleeting thoughts
- Withdrawal, lack of interest in formerly enjoyed activities
- Bad dreams that don’t gradually decrease in frequency or intensity
- Drug or alcohol misuse, self-harm
How can adults help?
It is important to help young people accept the reality of the loss by supporting them in their pain and the emotional aspects of their grief. Help them to adjust to an environment without the deceased by talking openly and truthfully, letting them express their feelings through things such as art, music, poetry, storytelling, photography or play. A memorial, such as a special garden feature or photo collection is a good way of relocating the deceased person in the child’s life.
It is also helpful to encourage attachment to another caring adult such as a trusted teacher, relative or friend.
Most importantly, offer the time and space for the child or adolescent to experience and explore the full range of emotions associated with their grief. If you have experienced the loss too, it is vitally important that you work through your own grief as well as trying to help the child.
Author: This article was written by Australia Counselling member Narelle Gillies.