Helping a Child Understand a Loss

 Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D.

Is a child capable of healthy mourning?  

A lot of people mistakenly believe a child is too fragile and vulnerable to bear a loss without permanent emotional damage.  Not true.  A child can escape emotional damage and permanent scars if we do two things:  1) Give candid information to the child in a way that he can understand, and 2) Provide patient and stable love and care to help the child heal.  If we accomplish these things, even quite young children can mourn in a healthy way and go on to form new equally strong attachments.

Adults/Parents should be willing to talk about the loss whenever the child has any questions about it. Do not postpone it to find a convenient time or place.  To say, "I am busy right now.  I will talk to you later," may lead a child to hide or suppress his emotions.

Answer the child honestly.  Confine your answers to only those questions asked by the child.  You don't have to explain the whole thing at one time. Sometimes, children want to know about such matters in their own way, in bits and pieces, just whatever they are thinking about.  They may not want to be over loaded with information.

It is helpful to know what is the child's concept[t and understanding of death itself.  Young children don't understand death in the same way that we do as adults.  As they grow older, children will gradually develop an understanding of death which is similar to ours.  However, a child, depending on his age, may have to be told about death in very specific terms, such as "Dead means not breathing, not seeing, hearing, or doing anything.  Once people are dead, they are gone forever as we know them.  They can't come back."  

Very young children think about the lost person in the same way as they do in the case of a living person.  For example, they wonder if the deceased person will be hot, cold, or lonely in the grave.  Some have yet to understand that death is a permanent loss and the person will not become alive again.

Some children understand the meaning of death better through the analogy of the shutting off of a motor. They may understand that the body has stopped working completely as a machine does when the power is cut off.

So we might go on to explain when body stops working, one can no longer speak, hear, see, feel, move, or do anything of any sort.  If the person who died was sick, restless or in pain, it would be good to add that a dead person no longer feels the pain and his or her body is quiet and in peace.

Younger children may not have any concept of afterlife.  By and large, only children 10 years or older understand the concept of after life in the way we adults mean.

Children under six years of age, in a majority of cases, do not understand that death is universal and final.  In other words, a child might know that the grandmother or grandfather died, and they did not come back, but this may not necessarily mean to him that the uncle who has just died will also not come back.  Since the young child cannot "universalize" from his previous experience, he may still hope that his favorite uncle will come back.

In a majority of cases, until a child is about nine years of age, he does not understand that death is permanent. So when we tell a child that someone died and the child is below nine years of age, he may not realize that the lost person is gone forever.

Children, between six to nine years of age are known to think of death as a living person.  They think that death is a "mean" person which has taken upon itself to come after people.  Therefore, some children believe that people can outsmart death if they are "really smart."

This concept of death in children works as a double-edged sword:  "If death got you, then you are not smart"  or "since I am not smart (as some people tell me), death can get me."  These thoughts, if unchecked, can run  in such a way that a child may start living in constant fear.

We all try to explain to the child about death in a way that he or she can relate to in his own experience.  However, in our effort to relate to a child's experience, let us not compare death with a "long sleep."  Equating death to a long sleep does not present a problem for adults because we know it is only a metaphor.  Since nobody really knows what death is like, we come up with something that we all have experienced.

The problem with young children is that they may take it literally and as a result of this misunderstanding, start dreading to go to sleep in the night, just in case they drop off into a "long sleep."

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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