In the situations when the child encounters the death of a close person, it is important to take care of child’s age and the way the child conceives death. In order to help a young child, it is important to know which conception of death the young child has.
A four-year old sees death as a form of sleep. S/he is unable to understand the life has ended and the cessation of life functions with death. Child of this age does not understand the finality and believes that the person will come back one day.
A five-year old begins to understand the finality, but still does not understand the universality of death, i.e. that death is inevitable for all people.
A six-year old begins to understand that death is the end of life, that the person will not come back, but still does not understand the inevitability of death and that everybody is eventually going to die.
At school age (up to the age of 9), the child will gradually understand that death is a part of life process and that it is inevitable for all people. This understanding will enable the child to accept the death’s physical and psychological meaning.
Young children in the situation of a close person’s death show various reactions, which sometimes may surprise their parents. However, in the mourning situation all child’s reactions are acceptable. Sometimes young children may deny that death has happened, but they also may withdraw and suffer and/or show they emotionally hurt. Sometimes they may feel guilty for close person’s death, show animosity towards the one who has died, or towards a living one.
They may also feel fear that other close persons might die or that it might happen to them. They may withdraw from their everyday activities. However, they may also persist in their activities as if nothing has happened.
The child who has experienced the loss needs help in the mourning process. It is important to have in mind that the most important persons for the child are the closest persons, i.e. parents, close grandparents, family members who are child’s natural aides.
You can help the mourning child!
Maintain an atmosphere of open communication and ensure that the child feels accepted. Give all the information about the death in an age appropriate manner. Give direct and clear explanations, without euphemisms and abstract concepts, in order to prevent the child from creating her/his own fantasies for the lack of information. The fantasies complicate child’s adaptation to the new situation. For example, if you tell the child that daddy’s gone asleep, the child may feel fear from falling asleep and this can be related to many other difficulties. Answer the young child’s questions patiently.
Never tell the child that s/he is too young to understand what is happening. At the same time, give the child ample time to take control over the new situation, both emotionally and intellectually. If the child does not talk about the death, it is still possible s/he is mourning, e.g. in the play. Young children can be very sad, although adults may think it is not the case. It is important to recognise child’s feelings, give the child an opportunity to express them. You can name her/his feelings, you can say that you can see s/he is sad and is having difficult time. Since the experience is completely new, if you name the conditions the child is in, s/he will better understand what is happening to her/him.
Do not be surprised if the child is expecting the person who has died to come back. Adults do it, too. Parents and children can help each other here. Ask the child how s/he is, have the courage to say it is difficult for you, too. Talk with the child about the deceased, say you are missing her/him, too.
Young children may show anger or protest if the close person’s death caused changes in the usual routines and habits. These changes do not have to matter to adults, but the child feels them. Let the child have such feelings which do not fit into the stereotype of mourning.
Allow the child to participate in the rituals related to the loss. This will help the loss to become real. There are no indicators which would oppose the presence of school children at the funeral of their parent. However, the child has to be prepared for that. The child has to be told what will be happening there, asked if s/he wants to go and who s/he wants to be with at the funeral. And, of course, child’s decision should be respected. A pre-schooler should also be asked if s/he wanted to be at the funeral. If s/he does not want it, ask who s/he wants to be with while others are at the funeral, offer some close relative while the rest of the family is away.
It is very important that during the mourning time the child feels togetherness with other family members. The child should by no means be isolated and concealed the fact that s/he has lost a close person.
Support the child in continuing with everyday activities (kindergarten, play, starting school) when s/he wants it. Contact the teachers in the kindergarten/school and ask for the appropriate child support.
And, most importantly, be patient with yourself and with the child in difficult moments.