One topic adults avoid talking to young children about is death. Indeed, as parents, we are determined to shield their children from anything that might hurt them, not just phsysically, but also emotionally.
So, it’s all the more difficult to expose them to the realities of losing a loved one, especially if the death involves their father or mother ― the very people who serve as the bedrock of the family.
Psychologist Dr Kit Phey Ling says the death of a parent represents a major and permanent transition for children, as this means that one of the most significant and stable figures in their lives has disappeared.
Explains Dr Kit, a lecturer in the Psychological Studies Academic Group at the National Institute of Education, “They might not be able to fully comprehend the immensity of their loss, and they might not have the skills to deal with this loss. As such, it is imperative that other significant adults step in to help them cope.”
The death of a parent represents a major and permanent transition for children, as this means that one of the most significant and stable figures in their lives has disappeared.
Experts generally agree that it is counterproductive to keep children in the dark when they have lost a parent. It is better to break the news to them gently, give them time and space to grief and let them to do so in their own way.
Most kids will experience what psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross describes as the five stages of grief which she expounded in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. Understand this process of grieving, so you’ll know what the child is feeling, then use it as guide to map out a healing plan. However, Dr Kit also notes that not everyone goes through the five stages in this order:
Stage 1: Denial and isolation
This is when the child first hears that his loved one has died but is unable to accept the news. Dr Kübler-Ross says this is normal reaction in the face of overwhelming emotions. It serves as a defence mechanism that allows the child to momentarily enter a phase where he becomes numb to pain, blocks out painful thoughts and hides from the facts.
Stage 2: Anger
Once denial and isolation start wearing off, reality sets in and the child may start to feel anger. The anger might be shown in different forms ― angry with the parent who died and left him too soon, angry at the doctor who failed to save his parent’s life or at relatives who try to comfort him. The child might even vent his frustrations at inanimate objects.
Stage 3: Bargaining
By this stage, the child is feeling extremely helpless and vulnerable and wants to have his parent back. He seeks to regain some control over his emotions by trying to bargain and might make statements like “If you bring her back, I will be a better son” or “If only I didn’t make her upset, maybe she’ll still be here”. Guilt accompanies bargaining and the child starts to think that had he behaved differently, he could turn back the clock.
Stage 4: Depression
When the child realises his parent is not coming back, he falls into a state of extreme sadness. He might lose his appetite, suffer from insomnia, is reluctant to get out of bed, finds life meaningless and withdraws from most social activities. As the feelings of sadness come and go, planning some exercise for the child now will do wonders to boost his energy and lift his spirits.
Stage 5: Acceptance
This stage is marked by a period of calm. Dr Kübler-Ross says a person must experience each stage of the grief to gain acceptance, and there is no time frame as to how long this will take. But once this is done, it will be possible for the child to move on and start living life again.
Adults could share with their children how they feel about the loss, too, so as to normalise the grief process.
Ways to ease a child’s grief
1. Lend an ear A great way to help your children is to listen while they share their grief. Dr Kit stresses that adults should refrain from telling children not to feel a certain way, or to move on with life. This is because it isn’t possible for anyone to “move on” without first experiencing the grieving process. She says, “Grieving children need to be able to express their grief openly without feeling they are being judged.”
If your children are very young and still don’t have the words to express how they feel, they might find it overwhelming to use the “I” statement to talk about their negative emotions. Encourage them to draw their feelings instead.
2. Keep their lives as normal as possible Your children might be feeling anxious over how their lives are going to turn out after losing a parent. So, make sure to reassure them they will still be well taken care of and that activities at home, their school and in the community will continue as before.
Dr Kit points out that adults could share with their children how they feel about the loss, too, so as to normalise the grief process. It is important to explain and ensure that the grieving children’s peers do not make fun of them, and instead, use this great opportunity to help other children learn empathy, as well as how to support their friends.
During these conversations, adults should also try to understand the children’s and their family’s views of life and death, based on their religious and cultural traditions.
3. Seek professional help While most children do come to accept their loss, some might continue to grieve deeply over a period of six months or more. Dr Kit adds, “They might show extreme emotional and behavioural problems, or even express the desire to commit suicide.”
She notes that in such circumstances, it is important for caregivers to seek help from a qualified mental health professional. Counsellors and psychologists will assess the children’s socio-emotional state, and use play therapy to express their feelings both verbally or non-verbally in a symbolic way. In this way, they are able to regain a sense of control and learn to cope with their emotional pain.”
4. Create concrete and lasting memories When integrated with grief therapy, play therapy focuses on helping children accept the reality of their loss, work through their feelings, adapt to a life without their father or mother, and to emotionally relocate their late parent to their memories.
A form of play therapy might involve making a memory box to store precious things. This helps children remember their late parent in a concrete way. Items that can be kept inside could include photographs, journals or drawings made by the children, or special mementoes that belonged to the dead parent such as jewellery and clothes.
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