Adults never want young children to have to learn about death. They want to protect children from pain and loss. But, child care professionals cannot shelter children from death. Early intervention during times of loss and grief helps keep children psychologically healthy and prevents the development of later emotional problems.
Although children cannot speak about their feelings and emotions like adults can, they still grieve. Even young infants under six-months-old grieve. For example, infants have deep relationships with their mothers and they grieve when their mothers are absent.
For infants, six-months-old to two-years-old, there is a more specific process of grieving. At this age, children are able remember and visualize their mothers and learn that they are separate individuals from their mothers. Children may protest and withdraw to the absence of their mothers. Children may become depressed and no longer seem interested in toys, food, or activities.
The loss of a mother becomes more devastating as children are able to grasp the specific difference of their relationships with various members of their family. Grief is often expressed by regression, such as clinging to others, wetting the bed, or wanting the bottle back.
Adults often fail to recognize the impact of loss on children and this can result in anxiety. With the loss of a mother, the very security of the family is disrupted and children may believe that their own survival is at stake.
Death of a parent can lead to withdrawal, irritability, and severe depression. But, there are certain factors that can influence the outcome of childhood bereavement. Such factors involve:
- Communication between children and adults about the causes and circumstances of the death.
- The nature of the surviving relationships in the family.
- The support given by the family.
Children exhibit their feelings through play and fantasy. Children will share their feelings at unexpected moments and often with only a phrase or sentence. This is an opportunity to help children talk more about their feelings.
Grieving continues for many years for children. Since children do not have the strength to deal with the pain in its full intensity, a great deal of the pain may be turned inward. Their pain may be expressed in misbehavior such as: seeking attention, talking back, losing concentration and motivation, or decreasing school performance.
There are common stages that everyone experiences after the loss of a loved one. Mourners may not experience the stages in any particular order and there is no pre-determined time limit of how long someone may grieve.
Stage One: Shock and Numbness: Even when death is anticipated, the immediate feelings following death are shock, numbness, a sense of disbelief, and denial. Denial is a defense mechanism. But the denial that protects a vulnerable and shocked ego must slowly give way to the reality of loss.
Stage Two: Separation: Separation leads to a sense of emptiness, loneliness, and isolation. Emptiness is the sense of being diminished from within. Loneliness is the sense that one’s surroundings are also empty of people who matter or care. Isolation is the sense of being divided from others.
Stage Three: Disorganization: The anxiety of separation involves a process of disorganization and a fear about the future. The fear and the disorganization are caused by uncertainty, about functioning in a different role, and the changes that are necessary after the loss of a significant person.
Stage Four: Rebuilding: Integrating and rebuilding is when death becomes a reality. Although the loss is sad it is seen as a challenge and people develop new strengths.
It is wise for child care providers to encourage parents to consult with a child's pediatrician to discuss loss of a child’s loved one. The pediatrician can suggest ways to help a child and provide specific ideas about what kinds of behaviors to expect, depending on what stage of development the child is in.