Children’s Grief Awareness Ages 1-6 years old
November is Children’s Grief Awareness month and I wholeheartedly encourage readers to become better prepared to help children manage grief. Here I draw on the work of Kelly Baltzell M.A. & Karin Baltzell PhD to explore how children view death, signs they may be struggling with grief, and strategies we can use to help them grieve well. This week I consider children under the age of six; in my next blog I will examine children over the age of seven.
Annie is 2 and a half years old, her mother passed away suddenly, throwing her family into chaos. Her dad and extended family focused all their attention on Annie’s older sibling who is nine. They missed the signs that Annie was grieving deeply, assuming she was too young to know what was happening. In addition to crying every morning and night, Annie began eating less, screaming more and isolating herself whenever she could. She was working hard to express to her family how she felt about the change she was experiencing, the loss of her mother.
It is so easy to overlook the youngest grievers among us. Very young children under the age of three experience loss, separation and abandonment, but do not have the language or capacity to talk about what they feel, so we must become attuned to their reaction to death or loss through their behavior. In the face of grief and loss, children under three may become quiet, unresponsive, sluggish or show changes in their sleep patterns. They may become aggressive, irritable and unable to conform to expected behaviors. We can best help them by keeping to their established schedule, being regular with feedings, naps, bedtime, and play time. Little children are sensitive to changes in their environment and feel safer when their routine is kept. Reassurance through touch, talk and being truly “present” to them will help them feel secure. They may not know what death is or what the long-range consequences are, but they are aware when something has changed and they can easily absorb the anxiety of the people around them. It is no wonder that Annie’s family missed her grief reaction. Most people consider grief “an adult thing”, certainly not something a toddler experiences. Because children cannot understand death doesn’t mean they are unaffected. Without the words to express themselves, when confused or grieving little children use their feelings, body and behavior to communicate their grief.
Ben was nearing his fifth birthday when his grandfather, his daytime caregiver since birth, became ill and died within a matter of months. His parents read him a wonderful story to explain that gramps had gone to heaven to live with God and would be watching over him all the time. Ben went to the funeral where wonderful stories were told and he saw many pictures, including pictures of him with his grandfather. He was involved in the service taking everything in. Three months after his grandfather’s death, Ben refused to go to church, wouldn’t go to bed on time and had a nasty disagreement with a playmate. When his parents asked him why he was so out of sorts these days, he refused to talk at length about it, giving a confusing excuse for each of his belligerent behaviors.
The child between the ages of three and six has a world view formed by magical thinking, black and white conclusions, and the ego-centric belief that they cause things to happen. Unschooled in the ways of permanency, they consider things of the world reversable. Viewing things as temporary coupled with not having developed an accurate sense of time, the child in this stage does not always understand death is permanent. It is common for them to believe they may have caused the death of a loved one. Some believe their loved one will magically reappear someday. These are common ideas children often have, but do not always voice.
It is possible that during the intervening months between the death of Ben’s grandfather and his new anti-social behaviors, he was awaiting his grandfather’s return, maybe even thinking that if he was “good enough” gramps would come back. In utter frustration and confusion over the long-term absence of gramps, Ben may be expressing his loss for the first time. His behaviors could be signaling confusion or loneliness not belligerence. Because it is easier for adults to manage grief, they can readily miss signs that children are struggling with grief.
We can best help children of this age by carefully watching for nightmares, changes in their actions, thinking, eating, sleeping, bowel or bladder changes or behaviors that regress them to an earlier developmental stage. While children may appear unaffected by a death, their behavior could be signaling confusion about it.
We can support Ben by talking about death with him in story form, insuring him that he didn’t cause the death to happen, and that being “good” or “bad” isn’t going to bring a loved one back to life. Children Ben’s age may or may not be willing to talk about death, it is best to take their lead. There are so many wonderful story books that help caregivers and teachers approach the subject of death; the best time to introduce the idea may be at the death of someone they didn’t know personally, such as a public figure, or a neighbor, or well-known person in the community. When a child is actively grieving the loss of someone they loved, they should always be given the opportunity to talk about it.
Ordinarily children are resilient, curious, and take in only what they are ready for. We can best help them by taking their lead and having a good understanding of the age-appropriate reactions to grief. As always, we should not be afraid to seek professional help when their reactions are severe or cause harm to themselves or another person.