When a family member dies, children react differently from adults. Preschool children usually see death as temporary and reversible - a belief reinforced by cartoon characters that “die” and “come to life” again. Children between five and nine begin to think more like adults about death, yet they still believe it will never happen to them or anyone they know.
Adding to a child’s shock and confusion at the death of a brother, sister, or parent is the unavailability of other family members, who may be so shaken by grief that they are not able to cope with the normal responsibility of child care.
Parents should be aware of normal childhood responses to a death in the family, as well as danger signals. During the weeks following the death, it is normal for some children to feel little immediate grief or persist in the belief that the family member is still alive. But long-term denial of the death or avoidance of grief is unhealthy and can later surface in more severe problems.
A child who is frightened about attending a funeral should not be forced to go; however, some service or observance is recommended, such as lighting a candle, saying a prayer, or visiting the gravesite.
Once children accept the death, they are likely to display their feelings of sadness on and off over a long period of time and often at unexpected moments. The surviving relatives should spend as much time as possible with the child, making it clear that the child has permission to show his or her feelings openly and freely.
The child has lost someone who is essential to the stability of his or her world and anger is a natural reaction. The anger may be revealed in boisterous play, nightmares, irritability or a variety of other behaviors such as soiling. Often the child will show anger toward the surviving family members. After a parent dies, many children will act younger than they are. The child may temporarily become more infantile, demanding food, attention and cuddling, and talking “baby talk.”
Younger children believe they are the cause of what happens around them. A young child may believe a parent, grandparent, brother, or sister died because he or she had once “wished” the person dead. The child feels guilty because the wish “came true.”