Grief is often described as an emotional response to loss; but grief is not a simple response. It can evoke a complex amalgam of powerful emotions such as sadness, anger, guilt, or regret. These emotions can be so overwhelming that they often translate into a physiological response, such as headaches, stomach aches, changes in sleep and/or eating patterns, among others.
Starting to talk about death and grief
This situation brings to the forefront two important factors that need to be considered going forward:
Understanding how children process grief and death
Developmentally, children process death and grief differently at different ages. A five-year-old cannot comprehend concepts of a soul or afterlife and believes the dead person will come back. A seven-year-old might begin to understand that death is permanent and can develop an extreme fear of death and of other adults dying. By the time a child is nine years old, they understand the permanence of death more clearly and are very curious about death and the body, and may ask questions if given a chance.
With varying levels of understanding of death among children comes different behavioural reactions. A five-year-old may display regressive behaviours such as bed-wetting or thumb sucking. On the other hand, a nine-year-old may be riddled with guilt and blame themselves for the death, which manifests in exaggerated fears or clinging to adults in their lives. Very few adults are aware of these manifestations of distress that children exhibit. Often adults may react to aggressive behaviours displayed by the child by punishing them—not understanding that the child is simply trying to make sense of their disrupted life and the absence of a loved one. Most adults are fearful of death, and they assume that exposing children to death or having honest conversations will traumatise them.
For children, the experience of death and grief has many dimensions. It is an emotional, intellectual, as well as a spiritual experience. Emotionally they struggle with overwhelming emotions such as fear and guilt, but at the same time, they try to make sense of death. Intellectually, they try to understand the fact that their loved one is not coming back and what that means—they try to figure out where the person has gone. Since religion plays such a large role in death, the rituals and the process of laying the dead to rest makes death a spiritual experience for children. They try to find their own spiritual meaning.
It is important for adults to understand children’s responses and provide them with the space to ask questions, express their feelings, and talk about their fears. Families, teachers, and health professionals could play a crucial role if they understood how to talk to children about their experiences. Programmes in schools that equip children with social-emotional learning skills or emotional resilience skills should incorporate conversations around death and grief. Children do know more about death than we think. They see it on TV or experience it when pets die. We can talk to them about death by referring to the phenomenon as seen in nature or on TV, taking their developmental age into consideration.
Creating awareness among adults
Alongside understanding how children process grief and bereavement, it is crucial that adults—including medical professionals and mental health service providers—are equipped to have these conversations. In many high-income countries, grief and bereavement counselling are part of regular counselling training; it is not uncommon to have bereavement support services that people reach out to when they find it difficult to deal with loss.