Bereavement In The School-Age Child

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D


A child may wonder, "Did I cause him (or her) to die?"

Young children have "magical thinking." They often believe that what they think or wish can cause things to happen. Assure the child in clear and unmistakable words that he or she did not cause the death of the loved one, no matter what thoughts or feelings they may have had.

A lot of times, when children are angry, they are not just angry; they are furious. In an intense rage or a temper tantrum, a child may wish a parent to just disappear and be gone forever. Unfortunately, if that parent dies later, the child may hold himself responsible for the parent's death. He may think that his anger was the cause of the death. He may begin to believe that he is a "bad child"

Children are known to carry secret or even sometimes open guilt feelings that perhaps God took their parents away because they were "mean," "bad," or that they caused too many problems for the deceased.

Explain the cause of death, whether an accident or an illness, and assure the child that his behavior did not cause the death. For example, "Your father didn't die because you did something wrong. He died of a heart attack." Assure them that the deceased loved them and that his or her death does not mean that the loved one was angry with the child.

After the loss, a child may feel bad for yelling, screaming or being upset with the surviving parent. Assure the child that it is part of the grieving behavior and that he will gain control over his behavior with time.

We all express grief in different ways including children. Therefore, if another child in the family is absolutely quiet and not crying or screaming like his sibling, that is his own way of grieving. No one way of grieving is particularly better than the other.

A child may be angry with the surviving parent for letting the other parent die or for not doing something to bring the deceased parent back. This child may be working on an insufficient understanding of the cause of death. Help him to understand the cause and circumstances of death.

As a parent of a grieving child, you are also coping with your grief, and some time you may find yourself shouting at your child. You probably are feeling the anger that just rises up inside you, on its own. Your child may not have done anything to cause this. If this happens, tell your child immediately that you are sorry and clarify that you are not angry with him. Do tell your child that he has not done anything wrong: it's what you are going through.

Sometimes, when your child sees you crying or upset, he may wrongly think that he is the cause of your tears and pain. He may invent a reason for it, "I played too long. I shouldn't have gone to grandma's house" or some other reason that his mind may invent at the time. Of course, assure the child that he has not done anything wrong but also share the emotion that you were really going through at the time.

Many parents fear that taking the child to a funeral home or to the cemetery may be too upsetting to the child. They think that talking about the dying or the dead and expressing their "weak" emotions in front of the child may be damaging to him. These are incorrect fears. A child gets more anxious when he suspects something is going on but nobody is explaining to him exactly what is going one. Attend to the child. Answer the questions.

If a child is asking to go to the funeral, take him. However, inform him what to expect in a funeral. Prepare him in advance. On the other hand, if the child does not want to go there, let the child say "Good-bye" in the way that he wants to and only when he is ready and willing to do that.

It helps the child to say good-bye to the deceased in more ways than one. Going to the funeral, attending the memorial service, visiting the cemetery, participating in social and religious events, writing a letter, painting and making something for the loved one are ways to say goodbye to the departed person.

The answer to what is really good for a child is to follow the child's cue. If he wants to participate in any of the above, it is most likely that this will be helpful to the child.

Children 10 years old or older can meaningfully participate in almost all types of religious, social or cultural events, to honor and remember the deceased. Some children may even want to say something publicly on such occasions. This too is helpful, if it is entirely on a child's initiative.

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Copyright 2000, Mind Publications 



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