Children's varying personalities and attitudes determine their respective cognitive or psychological understanding of death, expression of grief, and coping mechanism. For the purpose of ascertaining these three stages that bereaved children undergo, this paper identified and discussed the different perceptions of children about such loss, their manifestations of sorrow and how parents, teachers and counselors can help. The specific situational examples and experiences of bereaved children were presented in order to have a clearer and acceptable picture of how such tragic event affects the lives of helpless yet unpretentious children.
Helping Bereaved Children Understand, Grieve and Deal with Death Accepting the death of a loved one is difficult yet telling, explaining and making a child understand the loss is a more challenging task. Just as the adults or parents of the children are dealing with their own grief, it is perceived that the younger ones should be spared from the same agony. This is for the reason that children, with their fragile minds and emotions, find it more difficult to cope with death. However, not allowing a child to understand, grieve and cope with the trauma of death is risky.
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Children should be supported and not be left alone when they deal with death. It is during their search for answers about a lost life that children most need the help of others. It is also during this time that they should be allowed to express their emotions and be reassured by the family that death is a natural aspect of life. Children will be inevitably affected by a death of a family member, friend, or someone within the community. Children's tender age, psychological understanding, emotional expressions, and coping mechanisms can be protected by love from people around them.
Children, generally, have the distinct trait of holding back their true feelings, while some of them are more open to express their emotions. However, adults must take note that irrespective of this positive or negative quality, children who suffer even more profoundly also need to understand and cope with death. Children's Cognitive Understanding of Death Death is a very hard experience for the younger ones to accept or realize. According to Doka (2000), children fight with a mixture of thoughts such as “inevitability, universality, nonfunctionality, and irreversibility of death.
” Following the death, children would still be dealing with apprehending what their immature minds can only think and handle. They pass through the stages of “cognitive, spiritual, emotional and social development” (Doka, 2000). Doka (2000) explained that younger children are inclined to perceive death based on their own limited view. Thereafter, growing children tend to show sympathy. It is also during this stage that they are more capable of accepting and understanding the situation and collect themselves. However, Doka (2000) noted that younger children manifest a "short feeling p.
” This is because they can prolong their intense emotions only for a limited period (Doka, 2000). Fighting with death is not only confined to children who are in dangerous circumstances or to those who are psychologically or emotionally unstable. Nowadays, it is a proven fact that majority of children have directly or indirectly experienced death or death-related events even at their early lives. An article from the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying said that curiosity regarding death is a portion of children's average degree of development and search for information about the world.
The same article specified an example about a dead fish floating in the water. This scenario can grab a child's interest but at the same time can be a troubling experience. If analyzed, the child's inquisitive instinct automatically desires to learn more. However, the same child is likewise conscious of the possible danger of the situation. That is, if a living animal can die then other living things such as humans can also die. Children's exposure to death is usually not only attached with some degree of anxiousness but also of elation.
This is because of the idea that the discovery of something sensitive such as death has actually led them to life's many mysteries (Children and Adolescents' Understanding of Death, 2007). The same article proved that there are a lot of affirmed studies of death consciousness among children. The article used cases involving a father and son as an example to show that even with a child as young as sixteen-month-old can be aware about the concept of death. The child's awareness about death came as soon as he saw that the caterpillar, which he has been admiring, was crushed by a passerby.
The toddler anxiously reacted about the death and eventually refused to return to the place. After less than two years of being born unto this world, the same child can already and clearly connect life with death (Children and Adolescents' Understanding of Death, 2007). With an early introduction to education, preschool children are inclined to view death as just short-lived and correctable. Crenshaw (1999) said that children believe that their deceased loved ones are just somewhere and it is still possible to see or speak with them.
Confusion sets in among preschool children especially regarding the details of death. This is because of the children's innate nature of thinking about things in an exact or factual manner. Crenshaw (1999) added that children ask questions such as can a dead person still breathe even if buried in a coffin and how can a dead old man who is buried be with God in a place like heaven at the same time. These queries manifest the preschoolers' difficulty in relating intangible philosophical and religious ideas into their very limited realization of death (Crenshaw, 1999).
Younger grade-school children between the age of six and eight usually perceive death in a personalized and imputable manner that oftentimes connotes fear (Crenshaw, 1999). Their fear is reflected in the things they imagine or invent, such as when they imagine that a dreadful ghost in a skeleton costume is following them. Children's fear of death causes them to protect themselves. They use a defense mechanism that death is limited and only happens to physically weak people, the elderly, lame people, and people who are slow in running and are unable to escape “the ghost or spirit” that hunts them (Crenshaw, 1999).
During this stage, children dream a lot of such frightening depictions of death. As they get older by the year, they reach a significant mark in their psychological growth that allows them to realize and accept that death is a true happening of life (Crenshaw, 1999). At age nine, they start to acknowledge death as a normal activity that happens to all living things and that it is permanent and unavoidable (Crenshaw, 1999). Crenshaw (1999) noted that this is the start of such realization of death but it is until children reach their adolescence that they are able to strengthen this understanding.
The National Association of School Psychologists or NASP (2001) affirmed the Crenshaw report and stated that children pass through developmental stages in understanding death. It is initially significant to acknowledge that every child has his or her distinct understanding of death. This cognitive ability is based on a child's developmental degree, psychological ability, quality or attribute, spiritual inclination, acquired instruction from parents and others around, information from the media, and death-related events in the past.
The association, however, said that there are general circumstances that can be used to understand how children feel and cope with death. These considerations are seen during the stages from being “infants and toddlers, preschoolers, early elementary school, middle school and high school” (NASP, 2001, p. 2). NASP (2001) further explained that when someone is dead, infants and toddlers observe that adults are in sorrow yet they do not actually understand what death is and its impact and importance for them.
Young children in preschool manifest denial of death by perceiving it only as a temporary breakup and a reversible situation. Nevertheless, children between five to nine years old begin to understand that death is permanent. They also recognize that some events may lead to death (NASP, 2001). Preschoolers and even early grade-schoolers connect the causes of death with some supernatural imaginations and real life events such as the September 11 bombing of the World Trade Center (NASP, 2001).
Because of the 9/11 tragedy, they are able to grasp the idea that if an airplane hits a building, its passengers and those in the building will possibly die. Thus, these children envision that being in tall facilities is fatally dangerous. It is during this stage, however, that children are unable to draw the difference between what they visually see and the actual happenings around them (NASP, 2001). Moreover, they view that death occurs to others, not to themselves or even their immediate family members (NASP, 2001).
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