I spoke with someone this past week about a 5-year-old whose grandpa is near death. It sounds like the parents did everything correct in explaining the situation to this little girl in simple accurate terms. They were also planning to record her singing songs to play for Grandpa to hear, even in his unconscious state. But was there something else they should do or say?
One thing that’s important to remember is that with a young child, it may be more than once that the “explanation of what happened” will need to be given. It’s not that children aren’t listening or paying attention, but the permanence of death is difficult for them to comprehend. So they might accept the information quite maturely initially, and a day later ask, “When is Grandpa coming home?” Being patient and letting them hear the story repeated is what they need.
Showing emotion in front of children allows them to know it’s natural and okay to feel sad. Repeating vivid details and concerns, however, in their presence should be carefully avoided. Sharing stories and laughter about the loved one helps children know that it’s okay to be happy also when we think about and remember, in this case, Grandpa.
Children will work their feelings of grief and sadness out in their play world. If you pay close attention to them, as days go by, you will get a sense of how a child might be working through his/her emotion in play. It is through play that children process new information and experiences and express their feelings. It is very common for death to become a common theme throughout the play of a child who has suffered a loss. This is a helpful and healthy way for children to heal even though to adults it may sometimes appear almost insensitive. It will end when the child has satisfied his/her need to explore these feelings.
Children will still need physical activity during this time yet to the adults this may seem hard to provide. Physical activity is a way for children to release energy and stressful feelings that otherwise might build up and come out in inappropriate behavior. Perhaps finding a friend or teenager to provide this type of activity would provide some needed space for all involved.
Including a child in some manner when a loved one is dying or has died is necessary. Artwork, music, planting flowers, writing a story, reading a poem, collecting things will make a child’s grief be helped through planning and contribution.
Prepare for some changes in children’s behavior. Experiencing loss creates a sense of insecurity when someone they love leaves them. Depending on the circumstances of a death, they can become anxious that others that they love will also leave them or something will happen to themselves. Often children will become clingy, whiny, trouble going to bed at night, regressing in activities that they were able to do independently. This will be temporary and best to try and accept the behavior and be there for them as part of the process they are going through.
A friend I met in college shared that her dad died when she was 8-years-old. She and her younger sister had been at their grandma’s house when it happened. Her mom, wanting to protect them from experiencing the grief and sadness, left them at their grandma’s house until everything was over. They returned home without experiencing or being a part of any of the shared healing and expressions of grief that they so needed to feel. At 19 years old, she was still trying to assimilate her feelings about what happened.
As parents it is only natural to want to shield our children from sadness and loss as much as possible, and we all hope that our children can avoid facing loss at a young age. But life is unpredictable. So we need to remember our children are resilient and will respond in their childlike way and emerge strong and whole through this time with the help of loving, nurturing adults in their life.
Blessings to this 5-year-old little girl as she grieves the loss of her special grandpa.
If your child is experiencing or has experienced loss and you are concerned and would like to talk about ways to help, give me a call at The Parenting Place, (608) 784-8125 .