How your child reacts to death will depend upon their age, experience and personality. A five to six year old may become sad, withdrawn or even confused. How they react to this loss can depend upon-
- Their closeness to the person deceased. If they shared a very close relationship, then chances are that they will be badly affected.
- Whether death was an expected one preceded by long suffering or a sudden crushing blow to the family. The sudden loss might disturb their emotional equilibrium.
- How much their immediate caregiver has been affected by the death? Children may be sensitive to the parents’ agony and sadness and this might cause them concern rather than the actual death itself.
You can make it easier for the child by taking care of a few things-
- Answer questions: It is important to let them know that death is irreversible. Explain to them that it occurs when the body stops functioning and no one is able to fix it. Do not say that you “lost” the person or they “went away”. For a five year old the world is literal and they might become fearful about others going away and not returning.
- Answer to the point: If your child wonders where the person has gone, it might be a good idea to explain about heaven or afterlife as your beliefs might be. Do not personify death. Give them clear, simple and honest explanations.
- Unexpected reactions: Sometimes your child might show their sadness only after a few days- when the finality of the death sets in. At other times they might insist on believing that they are alive. Handle these situations gently.
- Participate in the funeral: Of course it is entirely up to you to decide whether your child is ready to attend the funeral rituals. If you do decide to let them, then explain the rituals and the mourning process to the child. A collective good bye process might assuage their feeling of loss.
- Cry in front of them: Do not hesitate to express your feelings in front of the child. They understand that crying is a natural reaction to emotional pain. And they feel more comfortable to share their feelings. However do assure them that they are much loved and that you are perfectly capable of keeping them safe and secure.
- Get support: If you are in a state where your grief prevents you from helping your child, then get help. Ask someone, among family and friends, whom you like and trust to take care of your child. If the death involves a parent or a sibling it will very traumatic for your child. Your child might react in anger, sadness, depression or even guilt. It is important for your child to know at this time that they are much loved and wanted. And what happened was not their fault. Keep their school and teacher informed of the trauma and let them help.
If you feel that your child’s depression continues beyond the expected length of time then do not hesitate to seek professional help. Of course, also find the strength to cope with your feelings of loss and grief.