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Children and Grief: Helping Your Child Understand Death


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Facing Children's Fears When a Loved One Dies

By Joey O'Connor What are the fears a child faces when a loved one dies? This is a question every parent needs to think about in terms of their child’s unique personality and past experiences. When a relative or friend dies, the child must not only try to deal with the troublesome emotions of grief but also try to understand the many changes that are taking place in his or her family.

As everyone tries to cope with the death, the dynamics of family change can be unsettling for children. In particular, the death of a parent can set in motion a whole new set of changes in a child’s life. The death of a parent may prompt a move to a new neighborhood and school. Financial challenges may face a family that does not have life insurance. A stay-at-home mom, now a single mom, may be forced to enter a professional career and place her children in day care. These changes, along with the death itself, create conflicting emotions and can be the source of previously unexperienced fears.

Family crises, whether short-lived or long term, necessitate tremendous adjustments by each family member. Depending on how family members treat one another, what family members are permitted to talk about, and how the family responds to crises, these adjustments may greatly affect the children’s capacity to understand, communicate, and cope with their fears. Though the world can be a scary place, all children really want is for their home to be the safest place on earth.

When a loved one dies, your child may experience any of the following fears.

Fear of Abandonment

There is nothing worse than a child’s fear of being separated from or abandoned by his parents. The emotional and spiritual trauma of losing a parent, sibling, schoolmate, or relative can spark intense fears of being alone. Following a death, it’s not uncommon for a child to fear being abandoned. A child may not want to leave her parents’ side. The child may express fear of everyday events like going to school or to the grocery store.

A child who previously played by himself alone with a room full of toys may become clingy and not want to be left unattended. Physical symptoms, such as headaches and unexplainable stomachaches, may surface at school because the child desires to be at home with Mom or Dad. Bed-wetting, listlessness, and uncharacteristic forgetfulness may be symptomatic of unspoken fears and unresolved grief. A death can make a child feel terribly lonely and isolated. Being left unattended, even for short periods of time, can ignite powerful feelings of anxiety and loss in a child who has been traumatized by the death of a loved one. The words “Mommy! Daddy! Stay with me. Don’t go!” are worth paying attention to; they signal a child in need of attention and reassurance.

Fear of Death

When children learn of a death, they fear that their death is imminent. Recognizing this fear, a child may wonder, Am I going to die too? My grandpa died in his sleep. Will I die when I go to bed tonight?

Depending on the cause of death, a child may associate death with a particular activity, place, or event. Death might be linked to a hospital, so the child develops a fear of hospitals. After a fatal car accident, a child may be afraid to ride in cars. Whatever caused the death can become a focus for the child’s own fear of death. Pools. Playgrounds. Sickness and diseases. The child believes they will die in the same way.

In the case of a deceased older sibling, the younger siblings may believe they, too, will die when they reach the age of the older sibling.

Fear of Going to Sleep

Since sleep is a prolonged period of dark isolation from parents, brothers, and sisters, it’s easy to see how going to bed can make a child feel scared and insecure. For many children, going to bed can be a terrifying experience even when no one has died. So when a death occurs, a child’s normal fear of sleep can be escalated to greater levels. The terminology adults use to explain death to children doesn’t help to alleviate the turmoil of this problem. Phrases such as “eternal slumber,” “rest in peace,” “eternal rest,” and “Grandma has gone to sleep for a very long time” contribute to a child’s equating sleep with death. What child would want to go to bed if they thought they wouldn’t wake up for a very long time?

A child who is afraid to go to sleep may want to read book after book, cry incessantly, or take forever to get ready for bed. If your children keep hopping in your bed at night or asking you to sleep with them, their behavior (like so many things in the grief experience) could be related to their need for security. In most cases, wanting to sleep in the parents’ bed is short-lived, though kids love to sleep in their parents’ bed anyway. However, if this becomes a prolonged battle and source of contention, you may want to seek professional help. Again, grief is not a pathology or mental illness. But what a competent child therapist who specializes in grief can do is provide your child another safe place to deal with their grief, as well as provide you as a parent with some helpful tools and insights.

Nightmares are another common occurrence associated with the fear of going to sleep. The child may be terrified of a recurring nightmare. Going to sleep can conjure scary dreams of reliving the accident, meeting the dead person, or confronting a horrible beast. Sleep disorders such as insomnia are a regular experience for children who lose a loved one. Nightmares may also be indicative that your child has not been given adequate opportunity to complete what was left unfinished at the time of the loss.

Fear of Death of Parents and Other Loved Ones

For the majority of children, the home is the central source of security, protection, and well-being. The fear of losing one or both parents is a direct threat to a child’s need for protection.

A child’s fear of losing a parent or sibling can be powerful. To deal with the intense fear of being alone, they may whine and cry, never wanting to leave their parents’ side. Business trips can become a source of anxiety for the child who is afraid of losing a parent to airplane, car, or train crashes.

To a child, a parent is everything. Instinctively, children look to parents for love, nurture, affirmation, protection, comfort, and physical provision. Even in abusive homes in which only a child’s basic needs for food, shelter, and warmth are met, the child may still experience the fear of a parent dying in some sort of tragic and unexpected way.

Fear of Showing Emotion

Whereas young children may openly cry and display emotions such as anger and sadness, older children may be afraid of showing emotion out of fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. An older child may feel guilty for making Mom cry. A brother or sister may get angry at a younger sibling for talking about the person who died.

Children may receive the implicit or explicit message that it is not okay to talk about a parent or sibling who has died. Grieving and open displays of emotion may not be acceptable. Strength, not weakness, may be the marching orders of the home. This makes it extremely difficult for a young person to process the volatile and conflicting emotions of grief. For fear of punishment, children might repress feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, and loss.

In families in which emotions are not openly discussed or displayed, the home becomes a mausoleum for the living—a cold crypt for the crushed in spirit. The dead person may, quite literally, become a skeleton in the family’s closet. Death, grief, and mourning may be forbidden subjects that no one is permitted to experience or discuss.

Fear of the Unknown

Death is a mysterious, powerful experience. The upheaval it causes in families is tremendous, and for that reason alone, a child can become afraid of everyday situations and events. Fear of the unknown is the anxiety a child feels simply from living in an unpredictable world. It is fear for fear’s sake.

Anxiety is characterized by undefined fears and generalized uneasiness. Like a coiled rattlesnake, the fear of the unknown springs forward in nervous thoughts and questions such as “When will Daddy be home? When will I die? Do all kids die in car accidents? Do all people die when they get sick?” The unpredictability and capricious nature of death can make children feel overwhelmed by the fear of something terrible happening when they least expect it. Natural disasters, crime and violence, and trouble in the home all contribute to a child’s fear of the unknown.

Fortunately, as parents, relatives, and caregivers, we have specific and practical steps we can take to help our children deal with their fears in a healthy and constructive way.

• Take time to understand the unique personality of each one of your children.
• Talk with your children about their fears. Let them know that fear, like all emotions, comes and goes. It’s not wrong to be afraid.
• Offer the comfort and reassurance of your presence.
• Read grief books and literature to better understand what your children are experiencing.
• Do not make too many commitments after the death of a loved one in order that you might be attentive to your children’s needs.
• Look beyond “acting out” behavior to identify your children’s fears or needs.
• Don’t punish your children for being scared.

Joey O’Connor is the author of Children and Grief (Revell, 2004), from which this article is excerpted. Joey is the author of seventeen books and is the director of the Orange County Grief Recovery Outreach Program. As a certified Grief Recovery Specialist, Joey works with people dealing with major emotional losses suffered through death, divorce, miscarriage and job loss. Joey, his wife, Krista, and their four children live in San Clemente, California. You can reach Joey at his Web site:

Used with permission from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

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