Helping your child cope with bereavement

The
death of a loved one, however old or however expected an event, is always a
blow for close family.

For
children, the passing of someone they’ve had a personal bond with can be
particularly traumatic.

This
issue, though not addressed directly at a palliative care conference held by
Cayman HospiceCare on 4 and 5 June, lies at the heart of how death affects
multi-generational families.

Dr.
Virginia Hobday is the medical director of the Cayman Islands’ only respite
care facility and organised the conference.

The
family doctor and mother-of-two said: “Children need to be talked to very
sensitively but also honestly. Using vague terms, like ‘granny has gone to
sleep forever,’ creates confusion and unnecessary fears.

Ms
Hobday said children are usually very visual and pragmatic and the unseen or
unspoken can be worse than the reality.

“Talking
of death as a natural part of the life cycle and including them in making
memory boxes and remembering their loved one are very important,” she said.

She
also noted that children are as individual as adults and that no one grieves in
the same way. They, too, usually go through the same stages of denial, anger,
depression and acceptance.

“Children,
I believe, especially in the case of a first-degree relative, benefit from
receiving specialist bereavement counselling. There are also an enormous number
of resources available and hospice staff can provide books and leaflets which
are age appropriate.”

According
to Taylor Burrowes, a licensed mental health counsellor and a qualified family
therapist at the Wellness Centre, children’s understanding of death comes
gradually.

Younger
than five years

Children
of five and younger tend to have little abstract sense of time or distance, so
final and forever mean nothing. Dead to them means less than alive, asleep or a
journey, and life and death to them can be interchangeable.

Five
to eight years

For
this age group, death is final and, with their growing awareness of the world
around them, they can display an intense interest in the rituals surrounding
death.

From
around nine years

Death
is the perceptible end of bodily life and is inevitable, final and universal.

How
children cope with loss will depend to some extent on their personalities, but
mostly in the way their parents or carers have guided them. Research now shows
that children do grieve for the death of a significant person in their lives,
experiencing similar feelings to bereaved adults. Babies and toddlers may not understand
about death but will react to those around them.

Tweens
and teens

In
Ms Burrowes’ experience: “Older children may experience similar feelings to
adults, such as shock, confusion, anger and guilt.

“Children
of this age may not show their feelings openly, leading parents and others to
believe that they aren’t affected by the death. Any altered behaviour may
indicate that they too are suffering and need support and acknowledgement of
their pain.”

The
counsellor said that behaviour changes may include “becoming withdrawn,
bed-wetting, lack of concentration, clinging, bullying, telling lies and being
aggressive, all of which may indicate their upset state.”

She
has found that, like adults, children may suffer from stress headaches, sleep
difficulties and eating disturbances.

Both
experts suggested it is important that parents:

Tell
the child of the death soon after it’s occurred, using touch to comfort and console.

Answer
a child’s questions truthfully and as often as they’re asked, and admit to not
knowing the answer to a question if necessary.

Practise
open and honest communication, allowing themselves and the child to cry, which
shows the child how much the dead person meant to you.

Do
not rush to get rid of the possessions of the person who has died, especially
if they were a sibling. Remember that your child might want to keep something
as a keepsake.

Inform
your child’s school of the death and ask for the support of teachers, if
necessary.

Accept
the child as a bereaved person and don’t push them aside.

Taking
time to remember

There
is a tendency to shield children from painful truths. A funeral marks the end
of someone’s life and gives a child an opportunity to be involved with an
important ritual. If they wish to attend, tell them what form the service will
take, and honour their right to pay their last respects. They too may want to
say goodbye, place a favourite toy or flowers in the coffin, or write a letter
of farewell.

Remembering
the person who has died can also be important.

Share
the day as a family, pore over pictures, listen to their favourite music and
share recollections of happy memories of that person.

In
the days and weeks after the death, its important to understand that children
cope better if they see adults around them coping well with grief. So, keep
yourself active, avoid using alcohol as a crutch and look after your health and
your appearance.

Grief support

There
are a number of counselling services listed in the Yellow Pages.

Our
Angels Foundation set up the Full Circle Grief Recovery Group which meets, with
support from a trained counsellor, Wednesdays, 6pm, at The Conch Shell House,
492 North Sound Road. Call 946-2183/926-HEAL

Cathy
Gomez, pastoral counsellor – 916-6581

Heather
McVicar-Johnson, Christian bereavement counsellor – 546-7014/928-7745