The death of a grandparent is often a child or young person’s first encounter with the death of someone important. The realisation that we die may come with varying degrees of surprise or shock. Some children will work out that if a grandparent has died, other people may die, resulting in unusually clingy or anxious behavior. Others may take it in their stride.
Children and young people grieve just as much as adults but they show it in different ways. They learn how to grieve by copying the responses of the adults around them, and rely on adults to provide them with what they need to support them in their grief.
Children have a limited ability to put feelings, thoughts and memories into words and tend to “act out” with behaviours rather than express themselves verbally. Showing your grief will encourage them to express theirs. Their behavior is your guide as to how they are and this is as true for a very young child as it is for a teenager.
Children are naturally good at dipping in and out of their grief. They can be intensely sad one minute, then suddenly switch to playing happily the next. This apparent lack of sadness may lead adults to believe that children are unaffected, but this is a type of in-built safety mechanism that prevents them being overwhelmed by powerful feelings.
Adults naturally want to protect, but children have a much greater capacity to deal with the harsh realities of life than we realise, as long as they are told in an appropriate way. Even a very sad truth will be better than uncertainty and confusion. What a child does not know they will make up and their fantasies can be very distressing to them and difficult to deal with.
Children and young people need information given in words appropriate for their age and understanding. Without information, they cannot start to make some sense of what has happened. Children pick up on atmosphere and will be aware that there is something that everyone else knows about but not them. This can create feelings of exclusion and isolation from the rest of the family.
Phrases such as “gone to sleep” or “passed away” or words such as “lost” may feel kinder but can lead to confusion for young children, as they take words so literally. We encourage children to find things that they have lost and if they associate going to sleep with dying, this commonly results in anxieties at bedtime.
Saying that the person “went away” may cause the child to feel abandoned or think he or she did something wrong and is no longer loved. Questions need to be answered honestly, and in simple language suitable for the child’s age.
Children of all ages do not like to feel under pressure to express powerful emotions; it can feel too painful or just not the right time. Talking is only one way of doing this and for many young people, it is not what they find easy to do. There are alternatives. A shared activity such as walking the dog or playing a game takes off the pressure and therefore can be a time when a child will start to share their thoughts and feelings.
Every child is unique and will cope with the death of someone important in their own way. There is no magic formula. Openness, including the children in all aspects of the grieving process, and keeping as much to a ‘normal’ everyday routine as is possible will make a huge difference.