It is an unfortunate myth that all children don’t understand death and don’t grieve when a loved one dies. The way a child looks at death is closely related to his or her chronological age. Children under five don’t necessarily comprehend the finality of death. They understand that someone they love is gone, but they expect that person to return. Until age nine or so, kids tend to view death as a separation rather than a permanent reality. It isn’t until around age ten that children begin to see death as final.
The way your children respond to the death of a loved one may seem puzzling to you. It may seem as if they are angry at you when you had nothing to do with it. Your child may also regress to an earlier developmental period when his or her life felt safer. Other typical reactions include withdrawal, behavioral problems, nightmares, phobias, and appearing to be unaffected by the death.
How you can help
Regardless of your child’s age, there are some steps you can take to help him or her through the process. You should explain what happened in age-appropriate terms, but be careful to avoid saying things like the deceased person has fallen asleep, gone on a trip, or other ways of attributing absence to temporary conditions. Kids are intuitive and know when you are not being straight with them. You can also encourage your children to be open with their feelings, without pushing them if they don’t feel ready. Perhaps most important, reassure your children that they are loved and that you will continue to take care of them.
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