6 Key Ways To Help Children Grieve.
By Dr. Mutheu Talitwala
Just like children at different age groups understand death differently, they may present very different issues and needs making it important to take time to understand them. It is important to be aware of their mental health and foster the grieving process for full healing.
As stated on an earlier blog, the one to two year olds fear separation therefore it is important to maintain the routine they are used to. Feed them and put them to sleep at the same time, as far as possible allow them to stay at the same place avoid moving them away from home even during the preparation for the burial. Let them pay with other children as it provides for healing.
The three to five-year-olds may seem indifferent and may appear to show no emotion over death. This is because children do not tolerate sadness for long. They need to resume play as a way of protecting themselves from loss. They may develop the following behaviour as part of their grieving process. They may present eating and sleeping challenges, may be unable to control bowel and bladder movements hence soil themselves. They may experience body pains i.e. stomach-ache, headache and common cold.
They could regress to behaviour patterns of younger children like clinging to specific people, thumb sucking, bedwetting or reverting to being fed. They may also experience the fear of the dark, of new places and of being left alone. They may be overwhelmed by the thought that things they said or did caused the death of a loved one and will need reassurance that what they said or did was not the cause the death. Since children experience emotions like adults, there will be short moments of sadness, anger, anxiety and crying. It is important for the adults around the children to understand and accept these reactions as normal based on the state of their mental health.
The possible behaviour challenges for the six to ten year olds are viewed as socially inappropriate and will include anger towards other children or towards the teacher, poor grades due to preoccupation with the loss, inability to concentrate, physical illness before or during school. They may also express anger towards those they see are responsible for the death. The adults around them need to encourage the child to talk about the anger and encourage other ways of releasing anger like sports or walking. Keep in mind almost everyone struggles with anger during grief because there are no easy answers to the issues of anger or death.
It is important to put in measures to safeguard and strengthen the young one’s mental health consistent through the grieving process. There are a few critical things we can do as we walk with children through grief that allow each one to be themselves. Just know, they will be alright at the end of it all as we help them.
Pay attention: Very often after death, attention is paid to the adults and the children are left alone because the adults think children do not understand. Side-lining or ignoring them, creates a lot of discomfort and fear leading to inability to grieve. Since adults cannot hide what is going on from the children it is important to give them enough information. They need simple, clear, truthful information repeatedly because they forget and ask the same questions over and over. Talking to them about dead flowers and animals is a way of teaching them about death.
Answer questions: Children ask many questions and all they need are honest open answers. Adults need to be honest and tell the children they do not know the answer if they don’t know it. If one is very uncomfortable about the questions being asked, get someone the children trust to answer them. Keep in mind that the children are watching the adult’s non-verbal communication so ensure that what is said and what is communicated non-verbally are in agreement. Honesty will include giving accurate information about the cause of death i.e. dad was involved in an accident and died. As we do so the child’s concept of death grows.
Remember all we need is to give simple answers.
Give assurance: Another important thing children need is an assurance they will not be left alone. They may ask questions about who will take care of them so assure them they will not be left alone and give them names of the relatives or friends who will be there for them. The surviving parent or someone very close to them is usually the best choice of who should reassure them. Additionally, reassure them that the cause of death is not something they said or did. The absence of this explanation often leaves the child with guilt that may lead to psychological challenges later.
Encourage crying: As you talk to the children encourage them to express the emotions or feelings they have even though they may not be sure how to explain these. Encourage them to cry tears are healing. As they watch how the adults are behaving they will tend to behave in the same way and learn how to grieve.
Involve the children: Let the children be part of what is going on e.g. allow them to view the body, be in the service, and the funeral. All these help them know death has really taken place and it begins healing. The failure to involve them leads to feelings of isolation, confusion and makes them carry the burden of unexpressed grief. Involvement gives the children the chance to act out their grief and learn how adults handle same.
Give them room for expression: Children will act out their emotions so just give them room to express themselves. Their way of expression is through play therefore, allow them to play. Let them draw things then talk about the drawings or the games they played. During the talking allow the child to remember the good things and times with the person who died. These discussions create memories that help children to accept death. The older children can be encouraged to write a letter to the person or to God talking about how he/she feels. A trusted adult can ask to read the letter and use the information to help the child. The more we pay attention to the children the more we help them to learn how to grieve appropriately and protect them from psychological issues later in life.
All in all, these are general guidelines but you may find not all children fit into them. Be careful to allow each child to grieve individually. Helping children grieve well has major mental health benefits in the long run making this a vital process of growth.
Dr. Mutheu Talitwala, Psy. D., Consultant Psychologist, has been with Gilead Mental Health Consultants since 2013. She brought vast counselling experience having worked as a nursing trainer for many years and a senior psychology lecturer at Daystar University and Africa International University amongst other institutions. She also has extensive experience as a grief and burnout counsellor