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Grieving is difficult for children

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By Mary McKenzie

A new school year has teachers hopeful that lessons have not been forgotten over the summer. Often a long break can bring even greater changes in family and emotional coping of a child by a death. Returning to school can be comparatively as stressful as an adult going back to work after only a few bereavement days; yet even more so for a child considering developmental factors.

A family can begin to facilitate a more comfortable school experience by approaching the death of what can realistically help and what can not. It is important to allow for open communication about the death with true facts, giving a child permission to talk about feelings. Allow the child to see your grief; many adults spend great efforts to hide this. Finally, keep in mind the age of the child.

A child three to six years old does not have permanence maturity and believes that the dead can come back to life; or even that they can visit the deceased in Heaven. Regression may occur as a way to receive more comfort. Often anger and sadness is seen.  Sometimes a young child will view a loss as a punishment for a real or imaged wrong.

Universal questions of all children are:  “Did I cause this to happen?” and “Who will take care of me now?” This is a critical factor. Take the effort to give verbal support that they will receive care; even if they do not openly disclose this fear.

Grade school children may still think of ghosts in the movies, but they are beginning to understand that death is permanent at about age eight. This child may need more information to help cope. Anger can be misdirected in inappropriate behaviors. Poor grades are often a realistic fact due to the inability to focus because of emotional processing. Studies state that this is normal and grades will re-adjust in six months.

Adolescents and teens are able to view mortality; but often feel that it can not happen to them. Behavioral changes and poor grades also occur. The most effective outlet for teens in coping is peer support. 

No matter what age, a child can have reduced anxiety by the use of true facts presented with re-assurance. Hospice of the Bluegrass feels that a simple description for a young child is:  “The body got sick and the parts could not work anymore, so they died.”  Distinguish between being sick with a cold versus an illness. Allow the child time to absorb this and slowly they will want to know more and ask questions. Do not say that the deceased is only in eternal sleep. A child will become afraid to sleep.

Children often appear emotionally unaffected and will run off to play, which is puzzling to adults. This is normal as small children grieve in small time frames. Play helps act out feelings and reduce anxiety.

Children have the right to hear the truth. Often adults want to “protect” them and even go so far as to move pictures of the deceased from view.  It is re-assuring to see pictures and hear memories. Using this ritual of remembrance is a major anxiety reducing factor.

Besides going through scrapbooks, visit the grave and help a child understand the death by letting them help with flowers. Encourage them to place drawings or even little notes on the grave or near the cremains. It is a good life lesson and history class if the grave is on a family plot, as it helps to display continuity of life with stories of the past.

Hospice of the Bluegrass has grief counseling available to all children in the community, even if their loved one was not a Hospice patient. There is no charge. The Counselor can see the child at their school. Local schools have been very supportive of this. Talk and art sessions help to process a loss within a private, confidential setting. A parent only has to request it at 859-234-6464 and sign consent.

CAMP ECHO, a weekend camp for children ages 6-12 who have experienced the death of a significant person in their lives, will be September 11-13. Please call for an application 859-234-6462.