Being aware of how children normally respond to death makes it easier for an adult to help. It also makes it easier to identify that a child is finding it particularly hard to cope with.
Help in the early stages after death
Adults sometimes try to protect children from pain by not telling them what has happened.
Experience shows that children benefit from knowing the truth at an early stage. They may even want to see the dead relative. The closer the relationship, the more important this is.
Adults can also help children to cope by listening to the child's experience of the death, answering their questions, and reassuring them. Children often worry that they will be abandoned by loved ones, or fear that they are to blame for the death. If they can talk about this, and express themselves through play, they can cope better and are less likely to have emotional disturbances later in life.
Young children often find it difficult to recall memories of a dead person without first being reminded of them. They can be very upset by not having these memories. A photograph can be a great source of comfort.
Children usually find it helpful to be included in family activities, such as attending the funeral. Thought should be given as to how to support and prepare a child for this. A child who is frightened about attending a funeral should not be forced to go.
However, except for very young children, it is usually important to find a way to enable them to say goodbye. For example, they can light a candle, say a prayer, or visit the grave.
Helping later on
Once children accept the death, they are likely to display their feelings of sadness, anger and anxiety 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 they can show their feelings openly, without fear of upsetting others.
Sometimes a child may `forget' that the family member has died, or persist in the belief that they are still alive. This is normal in the first few weeks following a death, but may cause problems if it continues.