Children don’t know how to deal with the difficult, and sometimes tragic, situations that life can throw at them. Naturally, we want to protect them, to shelter them; we don’t want to damage the perfect, untainted worlds that children seem to exist in. Unfortunately, it’s not always up to us. Life – and death – happens, situations change, people drift apart, and yes, people do get ill and do get old, and sometimes they die.
So when these unavoidable events happen, how do we best help a child to cope? How do we help them grieve or adjust to new home circumstances? Sometimes children surprise us, and are more resilient than we expect them to be – or, than we ourselves seem to be. Other times, even at quite a young age, they can hide feelings away. Hidden feelings, however, are still feelings.
Death in the family
As, essentially, ‘new’ people, children can have a limited ability to grieve. Or, looked at another way, they have limited tools at their disposal to help them process and express their grief. This inability to verbalise their feelings can lead to ‘acting out’ as a way of coping with these unfamiliar, inexpressible emotions.
Young children also appear to be able to sort of ‘switch’ their grief on and off – distraught and tearful one moment, happily playing the next. This should not be taken as a measure of their grief, but merely as a sign of the way their developing brain works – inquisitive and ever-moving, with a limited attention span, however ‘serious’ the subject that’s supposed to be holding their attention. It may also simply be another coping mechanism, switching the feelings off when they threaten to become too overwhelming. The older the child, however, the less likely they will have access to this sort of coping, and the more likely it is they will stay in a ‘low’ state for a longer period of time.
As much as our instincts might prompt us to protect children, honesty, truth and participation are often the best path to take. Children of all ages are probably better engaging with the reality of death, however hard that might seem initially. Soon they become curious and have questions, and it’s best to sit down and answer these questions. At this time, having their family around them, and feeling included in everything that goes on, reinforces that sense of being supported in their grief, because a child will grieve, whether you like it or not.