How do “little ones” cope with grief?

When a tragedy occurs, and a military parent does not return home, consoling a grieving child is a horrendous task. Dealing with their emotions in addition to yours must be overwhelming. During this time, a major factor to consider is how children experience the loss; that is, what do they feel they have lost with the death. According to Silverman (2011) “Children’s reality has a logic, consistency, and integrity of its own. The meaning children make may seem strange to adults, if we do not consider that it reflects their age, stage of development, and experience in life”. As a mum of two boys, both under five years old, I thought I’d start by exploring the pre-school age group; what death might mean to them and how they might experience loss with a view to discussing some strategies that might help.

When someone dies, we not only lose the person who died but a relationship and the sense of self that existed in that relationship. Children’s sense of self depends on the presence of others. Their sense of safety in the world depends on others being available to take care of them. In general it is useful to make physical contact with young children who are trying to grieve; not to give false reassurance, to deny feelings or to change the subject, but to help the child feel safe enough to express and contain the feelings which may be raging inside. “Children of this age group are prone to magical thinking which results in their believing they caused the loss. Only when children feel safe will they be able to begin to let go of the fantasy and take reality on board” (Lendrum, 1992). In other words, they need to be told that the cause of their parent’s absence has nothing to do with them.

Generally children between 3-5 years old however, recognise that people exist separately from themselves. “Children are much clearer about their dead parent’s role in their lives, emphasising what the parent did for them, and with them. They focus on death as separation and are aware that with it comes sadness. They learn this from what they see in others. At this age, they become aware that their family is different from that of their friends, especially if they were very young when their parent died. They can begin to ask questions about what happened to their parent and where they are” (Silverman, 2011).

What might help children of this age group? I think children of any age should be given as honest an explanation as possible within their limits of understanding. They need to hear that their parent is not coming back and that it was not Daddy or Mummy’s choice. There are some great books on the market that could help them understand something more about what dying means. It might also be useful to help the child label the emotions they experience, however for some children identification of feelings is very difficult and so more direct, active and playful ways of responding may also be important, such as drawing pictures or looking at photographs together. They need to be allowed to participate in the family’s loss and told that it’s alright to be sad. They also need to know that you may be sad for sometime to come, and that it might help sometimes to talk about the person who died; to remember together even if you both cry.

Ideally, children need a continuing relationship where they can rely on the comforting presence of a parent or another adult; however, this may not be available because the adults around a grieving child are usually grieving themselves. Many parents, overwhelmed by the pain of their own loss, might find it hard to be warm or empathic when feeling so hurt themselves. In addition the child’s reaction can be painful and the child’s questions, which do need answering, can be distressing. This means that seeking help from other adults such as relatives, doctors, teachers, friends or counsellors is important. Finally, children might also need to be helped to say “goodbye” to the person. If it is not possible to do this to the person themselves, then a symbolic “goodbye” using aids such as letters, photo’s, drawings might help. These techniques can help to round off the emotional work and enable the child to reinvest in their current life, reconnect with emotions and form satisfying relationships again in the present.