Signs of children grieving
Numbness and disbelief
Simply try to comfort them. Try not to make them talk about it – they may be too frightened just now. Be patient and offer comfort.
This may include disturbed sleep, being unable to go to sleep, fear of the dark and nightmares. Again, they need lots of comfort and patient attention.
They may well deny that the death has happened. Denial is a necessary anaesthetic. In time the reality will come through their self protection. There is no need to repeatedly ‘put them straight’.
Under the stress of their loss, children of all ages may regress to earlier stages of development (just as adults do) and need extra care and comfort. Although you may worry about this behaviour, it is important to try and see it as expressing a need to be looked after and to be held. It is an opportunity for you to help children rebuild the security they have lost.
Anger and appeals
They may protest with anger or appeals – older children and adolescents may say something like ‘How could he have left me?’ or ‘Why did not the doctors make her better?’ Try to acknowledge their anger. It is a very human response to be angry and to feel abandoned. This may be very hard for you when you many feel exhausted and may be angry and desperate yourself. If you agree with any of what they say, let them know that you feel the same way. It is helpful for them to know that they are not alone with their feelings. Give them permission to cry.
Change of habits
Children may be restless and unable to settle to anything. Some children will eat a great deal, and even store food, to fill up the emptiness they feel inside. Others may lose interest in eating. Some children start to bite their nails, to pick at themselves, twiddle with their hair and so on.
They may feel despair. Again, it is hard to help a child who is despairing if you are full of despair too, but it does them no harm to see you cry and to know that you are also struggling.
They may feel that they contributed to the death. You can reassure the child that nothing they did or said or felt caused the death. Tell them that lots of people feel guilty when someone they love dies, or wonder if they did something wrong.
They may search for the person who has died, expecting them to come back and even feeling they have seen them in the street. This is a normal universal response. It is a necessary process before children realise that the person who has died is not ever coming back.
They will eventually understand that the person has died. Even though they probably feel very low, and perhaps lonely and rejected, it is necessary to truly believe that the person has died before anyone can begin to let them go, while holding on to precious memories.
Life goes on
Eventually they will realise that life goes on and that the loved person who has died is alive in their minds – a helpful part of their imagination for ever. Some ‘recovery’ may begin to take place after a few months, but where the death was particularly sudden and close it takes much longer, perhaps years.