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Understanding How Children Grieve


By Dr. Mutheu Talitwala

‘Daktari my sister needs help and I don’t know how to help her.’ Julia said as she walked through the door into my office. It must be urgent because she normally settles in with small talk before she starts talking but not today.

‘What is happening to your sister? Maybe I can help you if I know what is going on.’ I said.

‘I can share with you it is not a secret. The only secret about what is happening is that she doesn’t know I have come to seek help from you. If we get an answer I believe she will not mind,’ Julia replied.

‘Ok…go ahead.’ I encouraged waiting for a bombshell.

‘Three years ago, my sister Benta lost her husband suddenly in a car crash that also killed his brother’s wife and a very close friend. She was left to take care of my two nieces aged four and eight and a nephew aged ten. After this tragedy, the children seemed to be ok but over time they have don’t seem to be doing well at all.’ Julia said.

‘What do you mean by they are not ok anymore? What are they doing or not doing?’ I asked

‘My four-year-old nice seems to be afraid to go to bed, she refuses to go to new places, wants to be fed and dressed yet she used to dress herself. She also cries a lot and asks for daddy. The eight and ten-year-old have been reported to be unfriendly to others in school including teachers. Their grades have dropped and they seem to be sickly, don’t want to go to school, they are very angry and spoiling for a fight always. It is so strange because they used to the sweetest, funniest children I knew,’ Jane sighed sadly.

‘What you are telling me about your nieces and nephew gives us a good picture of what children at those ages go through during and after death. Children are affected by death just like adults and it’s important for adults to understand this so they can help the children cope.’ I said.

‘Oh wow! I didn’t realise that.’ Julia said quietly and looked off into the distance as if really absorbing the information.

‘Unfortunately, we often think that children do not understand death and hence we tend to ignore them or avoid talking to them in an effort to protect them. However, ignoring them makes them create fantasies which are often worse than the truth because they imagine the worst possible things. When we don’t understand the nature and extent of loss for the children we cause them to remain in a state of confusion which creates more stress than the normal process of grief.’ I said.

‘Do children really understand death?’ Julia gasped.

‘Yes, they do.’ I replied.

‘Oh my! Here we were thinking they didn’t understand.’ She said thoughtfully.

‘By the age of two children understand the concept of here and not here. Mom walks out of the room, they cry but are comforted when she comes back. They understand having and loosing, holding and dropping, appearing and disappearing. This is how they understand death. The person was here and is not here anymore. The greatest fear for these children is being separated from those they know because separation makes them insecure.’ I replied.

‘Separation anxiety, just like us,’ she said.

‘Yes, but it gets better.’ I replied.

‘How?’ she asked

‘Between the age of 3-5 years, children view death a sleep or a state that is reversible. It is important to help them understand death is not sleep. Using words like dead or died provides a base to begin to understand and cope with what has happened. Because of their limited sense of time, they will often ask when the dead person is going to come back. These children will ask many questions that can shock or upset the adults. For example, they may ask “why can’t we go and get another father? As adults understand that this question comes out of a need for security. The greatest fear at this age group is fear of separation like the younger age.’ I explained.

‘Aha! I have heard the younger one asking that and wondered.’ Julia said softly. ‘Is it the same as they get older?’

‘It is a little different. The six to ten-year-old children will gradually realize death is final, universal and personal. They may personify death as a person or ghost who catches and carries off his victims. By age ten they understand that death is inevitable and irreversible and that they too will die someday. This group cope best when they understand what is going on. Therefore, give them simple, honest, and accurate information.’ I replied.

‘We should explain to them?’ She asked in shock.

‘It is absolutely important to talk especially if you want them to heal well.’ I replied.

‘My goodness!’ she said.

‘But there is more.’ I said

‘Like what?’ she asked

‘The grief process may be made worse by the school situation were other children might say or do things that are upsetting or demeaning. If the teachers know what has happened, they are better able to give the child support. It is important to prepare the child for the questions or comments from other children in school.’ I said

‘I feel like we have failed them from the beginning. Can we turn the tide and help them cope or is it too late?’ Julia asked tentatively.

‘There is always hope Julia, you just have to be deliberate and work as a team to provide support for the family.’ I replied.

‘So what do we do?’ Julia asked

‘Let me get a cup of tea and we can continue with this discussion because the mental health of the children is important and must be handled carefully.’ I take a break and pour a cup of tea for each of us from the thermos in the office before I sit back down to continue the conversation.

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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

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