Soon after my father-in-law (a one-time pilot) died, my grandnephew, who was around five years of age, became angry. He focused some of this anger on his toys and said he hated them all; all except his book about aircraft. His reaction was fairly typical of a child of that age. Had he been a few months younger he would have been more confused about what it all meant. He would have sensed the unhappiness and change in family members and he’d probably have needed lots of reassurance and hugs to make things alright. But at the grand old age of five, death has a bit more meaning. There is usually insight into the fact that being dead means you aren’t coming back. Even so, there may be plenty of questions, and times when behavior is erratic.
A death in the family is an emotional time for everyone and very young children are no exception. Sadness is commonplace in children but so is worry and anger. A young child may be worried that other people may die and they will be left alone. They may reveal anger by playing in a more boisterous way. They may seem spiteful to other children or even pets, and become more naughty and less compliant in other circumstances. They may have disrupted sleep and experience bad dreams. It’s also possible for very young children to equate their own actions as the cause of death. They may believe that something they said or did, or didn’t do, was the cause.
Young children may ask questions, pass comments or behave differently at strange or inappropriate times for weeks or months after a death. This isn’t unusual so the role of the parent or adult in such circumstances is to be on hand to listen, reassure and answer questions to the best of their ability and in ways the child can understand. If adults don’t know the answer to questions there’s no harm in saying so.
Adults sometimes feel they are doing young children a kindness if they exclude them from discussions or activities following a death. It’s certainly the case that cultural and religious practices can govern the course of events following a death but in other situations it’s probably better to include even very young children. As much as many adults find comfort in ritual so can children. Attending the funeral, lighting candles, helping with flowers and other arrangements can help a child to feel included as well as providing some distraction.
Death and grieving in children often takes time. A child may appear to revisit the death, or even forget it happened. They may appear to accept and understand what has happened only later to ask when the deceased is coming home. Again, this is fairly common as the child seeks to understand and come to terms with the permanence of the change and their future. Patience is key. Reassurance may need to be repeated and stories and photographs can help to rekindle memories, which can be of great comfort, even if they stir emotions at the time.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.