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Children in grief

Children’s Grief by Age

Children’s grief reactions and their understanding of life and death largely depend on their age.

0-3 year olds experience death as loss, separation or being abandoned. However, they have no understanding of the finality of death.

3-6 year olds are confident that everything is temporary and everything can be made better. Their thinking is fantastical and they imagine that their thoughts and desires can lead to change. They may, for example, consider themselves to be to blame for the death of a loved one, but it can also be the other way around, that is, they may think they can revive someone by being particularly good or wishing for it hard enough.

6-8 year olds are beginning to understand the finality of death. However, they see it mostly as a result of some kind of accident or due to aging. They are often very interested in the course of events that led to death and wonder what happens after people die.

After the age of 9, children realize that death represents an end and can not be reversed. They realize that everyone dies, including themselves. At this age, children begin to show more adult responses to loss and grief.

Children’s Grief Reactions

Children who experience trauma and grief do not always show typical grief reactions as their grief is unique and is closely related to their development. A young child who experiences loss often has to reprocess the grief at a new stage of development. As a result, grief often recurs in children, and even into adulthood.

Children’s grief is therefore very difficult to deal with and requires that we, the adults, be prepared for it to present itself when the child engages in demanding developmental tasks such as starting school and adolescence. We must also be prepared for the fact that any change in the circumstances of children can trigger grief reactions and grief processing.
Children who have experienced grief or trauma may exhibit abnormal behavior, fall behind in their learning and development, and exhibit various physical symptoms.

Physical symptoms of children in grief can be:

Numbness – is usually the first reaction to a shock – to feel numb. The child feels unable to move and all thought seems to stop.
Anxiety – the child feels as if their throat is tightening and can’t catch their breath properly except with moans and sighs.
Sleep Disorders – the child has difficulty falling asleep and often wakes up at night, maybe crying or panicking.
Fatigue – sleeping disorders take their toll and the grief is energy consuming so the child may seem tired all the time.
Changes in appetite – the child has no appetite at all or eats a lot of sweets and snacks even though they have no appetite.
Stomach ache – the child feels like their stomach is in knots and even feels the need to vomit.
Headache – the child often complains of pain in their head, often at the front and sides, but the pain can also be described as heaviness and light sensitivity.
Night urination – the child may start wetting the bed again, even if they stopped doing so a long time ago.

Aches – the child may experience aches in parts of the body or everywhere.

Emotional symptoms of children in grief can be:

Excessive emotional turmoil such as anger and irritability for no apparent reason.

Separation Anxiety – the child feels unwell when they have to leave a parent or caregiver because of work and school.
Fear that other loved ones will also die – the child may be terrified that their parent or sibling will die.
Persistent thoughts about death – the child thinks a lot about how people die, what happens when they die and what happens to them after they die.
Learning difficulties – the child has difficulty concentrating and completing assigned tasks.
Guilty conscience – the child may feel guilty about the death of a loved one because of something they did or didn’t do.

School anxiety – the child does not feel up to attending school – partly due to separation from the parent and home and because of how vulnerable they are among their schoolmates and teachers. The child may just want to stay in the safety of the home.

Depression – the child does not seem to be able to enjoy anything, does not get up to anything new and can sit and stare at nothing for hours. The child also reacts badly to all attempts at companionship.

Behavioral symptoms of children in grief can be:

All of these reactions can be normal and can occur at different times in the child’s developmental process, last for varying lengths of time and come and go in waves.

Regression – the child can start using childish language again or wetting themselves.
Emotional hypersensitivity – The smallest incidents, such as seeing another child being scolded, can make the child cry or become frightened.

Acting out – the child hides their feelings behind difficult behavior, mouths off at the teacher and others who try to approach or control them.

Temper tantrums – the child reacts badly to commands and prohibitions and might scream or even damage things and hurt someone.

Indifference – the child shows no interest in people, hobbies or social activities they participated in before.

Need for attention – the child clings to the parent and teachers and tries various things to get their attention and others around them, for example by interrupting teachers during lessons, parents’ phone calls, etc.

Fear of being alone – for example, the child cannot be home alone, even if they are old enough and have been home alone before they experienced loss.

Crimes, such as stealing – the child feels excited when doing something wrong and thus gets a sense of life that they may not feel any other way. There is often an underlying desire to be caught so that the child receives more attention.

Abnormal Grief in Children

Although most reactions and behaviors are normal when a child has experienced trauma and loss, we must not attribute all explanations for the emotional state and behavior of children to grief. If a child who has experienced trauma does not manage to process their grief, they become trapped in the grieving process followed by an abnormal condition that can end in a major psychological crisis. Reactions such as stomach pain or shortness of breath can also have a physical explanation that is not related to grief and the child may need medical treatment.

If children show excessive grief symptoms for a long time, there is reason to believe that they are not able to process the grief and will need professional help.

How do we help a grieving child?

The words of Sigurður Pálsson, priest in Halllgrímskirkja.

“A child who is struggling with a problem needs a warm embrace, a warm heart and wide-open ears, but the mouth should be small.”

When a loved one dies

  • Getting to see the deceased can be important and helpful for a child/adolescent who loses a loved one. It gives them an opportunity to say goodbye and helps them accept the fact that a loved one has passed away.

Preparing a funeral

  • If a child/adolescent is a relative, it is good to allow them to participate in the preparation of the funeral. For example, participate in choosing a coffin, designing the look and content of the funeral booklet.
  • If a child is a relative and will attend the funeral, it’s important to explain in advance what will happen and what they can expect. You can request to have a quiet moment by the open coffin before the viewing ceremony itself takes place. Then children and adolescents can say goodbye in peace and quiet, put drawings, letters or other personal belongings with a loved one.
  • It’s good to show young children in advance where they will be sitting and what their role will be if they have a role in the funeral service. It is also important to discuss who will attend to them during the funeral if the parents are not able to do so. This way they are better prepared for the process.

Talking about death

  • Misunderstandings, if any are present, need to be eliminated, and words chosen carefully when discussing death with children. For example, if the deceased is referred to as being asleep, a child may be afraid to fall asleep for fear of dying.
  • Many children are also afraid of the hospital because someone they knew died there and they see the hospital as a place of death and not a place that also provides healing.
    It is best to talk to the children and explain things well.

Showing difficult emotions

  • Children can be overwhelmed when they see adults cry, especially those who always show strength. Therefore, it is important to prepare them for that when someone dies, people will be sad and cry and that is a healthy response to grief.
  • If the child witnesses these feelings in an adult, it gives them the message that they are allowed to express their own feelings in the same way and that it is normal to cry and feel sad.
  • Children need to be reassured that they are being cared for by adults even though the adults are grieving.
  • A grieving child must feel that they still have the affection of those who are left behind.

Keeping organized

  • Even if the daily schedule is somewhat disrupted, it is still important to maintain the schedule as much as possible. Encouraging everyone to wake up and go to bed at the same time as usual, make the bed, walk the dog, etc.
  • Grief is very energy consuming and therefore one must not forget to feed children and adolescents healthy and nutritious food and ensure that they get enough rest.
  • Organization provides more security and well-being in difficult situations. Especially for children.

Providing physical contact

  • Showing warmth and touching can often say more than a thousand words. A child/adolescent who is hugged knows that they are loved.
  • However, we need to be prepared for a child to reject physical contact while they are getting to grips with their feelings. This is especially true for adolescents – they often don’t want to show their feelings and can be afraid of losing control.

Focusing on the present and what can be controlled

  • In grief, we often become preoccupied with the question, what if? It is important to help the child/adolescent deal with the fact of the loss of a loved one and what cannot be changed.
  • It is important to try to focus on the now and what can be controlled.

Keeping items

  • When a child/adolescent loses a loved one, it can be important for them to keep things or items around that remind them of the deceased or were owned by them. For example, you can spray the deceased’s perfume or aftershave on a cloth or a piece of clothing and keep it.
  • If children/adolescents lose a parent, some people have the wedding rings melted down and made into a necklace or something else for the child or adolescent.
  • It is good to prepare a memorial book or memorial box with pictures or items from the deceased for the child/adolescent.

Keeping the discussion alive

  • The feelings of grieving children and adolescents are in constant flux. If a child/adolescent is open to talking about the loss, keep the discussion alive and try to encourage them to discuss their feelings.
  • The child/adolescent may not want to discuss the matter when the adults want them to. Therefore, it is important to be open and ready when they show signs of wanting to chat and to take the time for it.
  • However, if the child/adolescent wants to talk, try to help them find another way to express their feelings, such as drawing, writing a diary, composing music, or other.

Being in contact with people

  • If we keep in close contact with relatives and friends, we don’t experience as much loneliness in our grief.
  • Talking to someone who is willing to listen and show compassion is a great support.
  • Encourage your children or adolescents to keep in close contact with their friends and relatives.

Being happy in grief too

  • When we experience grief, it is often difficult to allow ourselves to be happy about something and have fun. We might even feel that it’s inappropriate.
  • It is necessary to explain to children/adolescents that we can experience many emotions at the same time. That they allow themselves to laugh and have fun even though they are grieving for a loved one. It gives them a break from worry and discomfort.

Being a good role model

  • If you take care of your needs and practice self-care by tending to your sleep, nutrition and other basic needs, your child/adolescent is more likely to do the same.
  • If you’re not shy about discussing grief, receiving help, and tending to spiritual nourishment, it will also have a positive effect on your children and adolescents.
  • The children learn what they are taught and the parents are role models in this as well as other things. With your support and care, the child/adolescent will be able to work through the grief.

Examples of books for children:

• Trevor Romain: What on Earth Do You Do When Someone Dies? Skálholtsútgáfan, 2010. A book that addresses the number of questions that children and adolescents ask after the loss of a loved one.

• Guðrún Alda Harðardóttir: When Dad Died. Hasla, 1983. A realistic story about life and death, seen from the point of view of a six-year-old boy.

• Astrid Lindgren: The Brothers Lionheart. Forlagið, 2012

Examples of books for parents/guardians:

 Sigurður Pálsson: Children and Grief. Skálholtsútgáfan, 1998. 

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