Childhood Problems
Coping with Bereavement / Grief

Compared to adults, children react differently to death in the family. Preschool children may see death as temporary and reversible. This is a belief reinforced by cartoon characters that die and come to life. Children between five and nine begin to think more like adults about death. But, they believe that it will never happen to them or anyone they know. A child's shock and confusion at the death of a close relative is often compounded by the fact that other family members, who may be also shaken by grief, are not available to the children for reassurance. Parents should be aware of normal childhood responses to death in the family. It is normal during the time after death for some children to feel immediate grief or continue in the belief that the family member is still alive. Long-term denial of the death or avoidance of grief can however be unhealthy and lead to problems later. A child should not be forced to go to a funeral if he is scared; however, honoring or remembering the person in some way, like lighting a candle, saying a prayer, etc., may be of help. Children should be allowed to express feelings about their loss and grief in their own way. Once they accept the death, they are likely to display their sadness over a long period of time, and often when least expected. The surviving relatives should spend time with the child, and reassure him/her that it is OK to show his or her feelings, openly.

Anger is a natural reaction to loss. The anger may manifest in boisterous play, nightmares, irritability, or a variety of other behaviours. The child may direct this anger towards surviving family members. If a parent dies, children may act younger than they are. This is a temporary phenomenon, of the child becoming temporarily infantile; demanding food, attention and cuddling; and indulging in baby talk. Children often believe that they are the cause of what happened. The child may have once wished the person dead, when they were angry, and may attribute the actual event to their action. Children who are having serious problems with grief and loss may show one or more of these signs:-
  • Sleeplessness, loss of appetite, fear of being alone
  • An extended period of depression.
  • Acting much younger
  • Excessive imitation of the dead
  • Make statements about wanting to join the dead person
  • Withdrawal
  • Poor school performance or school refusal
If these signs persist, professional help may be needed. A psychologist or other qualified mental health professional can help the child accept the death and assist the others in helping the child through the mourning process.

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