Everyone deals with grief in their own way. Adults have the advantage of having some life experience that should help them to cope with their emotions when it comes to death, though even an adult can be made to feel like a child when it comes to grief and loss, especially when the loss is in the form of a parent. The only advantage that children have is that they may be allowed to express their emotions more freely than adults. In every other way, they are at a complete disadvantage as their grief is an emotion that may be bigger than they are.
There are 5 stages of grief. It’s only appropriate that children go through these stages in different ways than adults do. Though no adult can reverse the death of a loved one to ease that pain for a child, there is plenty that they can do to help them get through these 5 stages of grief.
Denial/Shock: The first stage of grief is denial. This is such a strong force that children may not even remember when they were told about the death as their brain rejected it in disbelief. For instance, my mother died when I was 8 and I remember a doctor telling me that she was dead. Years after the incident, my uncle remembered telling me before I even saw the doctor. I don’t remember that and it’s no wonder since my uncle tells me that I simply stared out the window as if I hadn’t heard him at all. So, don’t be surprised if the child doesn’t register any emotion at first. It isn’t that they don’t care. They may have simply rejected the idea. If you are the one that tells them about the death, physically get down to their level and look them in the eye. Be prepared to comfort them or to meet resistance.
No child wants to hear that a parent has died. It may be something that never even occurred to them, especially if the parent is the custodial parent and has been a part of their everyday life. It’s not unnatural for a child to assume that a parent is always going to be there. Their own history tells them that the parent always has been there. The moment that the child comprehends that a parent has died, their world is turned upside down. It’s important not to make this worse for them. Keep them in familiar and comfortable surroundings, like their own home if possible. Let them choose who they go to for comfort. I speak from experience when I say that a change in location can be devastating. A child needs to be able to seek comfort where they feel the safest, not be forced to seek comfort from someone they don’t really want to. In fact, children who do not have the ability to seek out someone they trust may be stuck in the denial stage perpetually.
Anger/Guilt: What child isn’t going to feel outrage over the loss of a parent? They are going to question everything they know about the world, even God. They may even be angry at the person who told them or the people that keep assuring them that the death is real. Sullen and withdrawn behavior is not uncommon. Tantrums may come from a child who never had them before. While it’s not appropriate to give in to the child’s every whim, please try to understand that a child who has just lost a parent has emotions riding right at the top of their little system. What they need right now is patience and love, not a lesson in manners.
As children, one of the most common questions we hear is “Who did it?”. Naturally, a child is going to want to blame someone, no matter how irrational that blame may be. For instance, when my mother died, I went through various people in my course of finding someone to blame. I blamed my 11 year old sister who happened to be in the car with my mother. My irrational 8 year old mind thought that perhaps my sister could have done something. I blamed my father, who wasn’t anywhere near the accident. I blamed myself, thinking that I must have offended God and He was punishing me. Finally, I was torn between blaming God and my mother. For me, this stage lasted for years because I never had the chance to really process the death or to go to the one person I sought for comfort. The fact that I had argued with my mother before she left as well as the previous facts mentioned only cemented the belief that the accident was somehow my fault. Sounds pretty irrational right? That’s because it’s not. Now, here’s the really important part: There is nothing rational about the way a child processes the death of a parent. Remember, children are just learning how to deal with emotions and they have very active imaginations. Children have to process things in a way that makes sense for them, not you. It’s going to be inconvenient for you. It’s not going to make sense to you. Guess what? It’s not about you. It’s about the child.
Bargaining: A child how is dealing with the death of a parent will be prepared to bargain with all that they have. They may try to bargain with you or even bargain with God. This can be a crucial period for the child as that bargaining may eventually lead them to believe that they would trade their life for that of the parent. In a child’s mind, it will make perfect sense. They may think that even if the bargain of trading themselves for the parent doesn’t work, then they will at least be with the parent. It would be wise to allow the child to seek comfort from those they trust the most before it gets to this point.
Depression: Depression over the death of a parent is inevitable. You might be tempted to seek counseling and if the child is agreeable to this, it may be helpful. However, this is a natural process and the child should have some say in where they turn to deal with this depression that is masking all the deeper pains. If you consider medication, think of depression as diarrhea in a child. Diarrhea is the body’s natural way of expelling unwanted materials. It’s how the body tries to rid itself of infection. When you medicate this, you slow down the healing process. If you are tempted to medicate the child so that they can return to normal activities such as school, I would urge you to think twice. School is not near as important as the child’s mental health is. Don’t force the child to heal faster than they are able to.
Acceptance: At some point, the child is going to accept the death of the parent. This may cause some serenity in the child as they come to terms with their loss, but it’s also going to to cause a great deal of pain. A child is going to feel powerless already since adults make all the decisions. When they realize that there is no bargaining and no amount of anger that is going to bring the parent back, it’s going to be a crushing blow to the psyche. Again, you can help the child best by allowing them to seek comfort where they are compelled to. Keep then in their own environment if possible.
No matter how the death of this person impacts you, you have to keep in mind that the child is the one who needs the focus right now. This is not the time for an adult to be selfish. It’s not the time to step in and try to change the child’s life. Now is the time for you to be available as needed to this child. If they seek comfort from someone you don’t like, deal with it.
If possible, do not remove the child from the home. If this is a split family, do not force the child to accept someone into the role that was lost in the death. Be patient with their questions and their emotions. Remember that a child dealing with the grief over the death of a parent needs you to be there for them right now.