Children and Grief
The death of a loved one is a part of the life cycle that brings grief to children as well as to adults. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 4% of single parents had been widowed; 13.9% of these households included children under the age of 12 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001). In addition to the death of a parent, many children may also experience the death of a grandparent, sibling, or friend. Parents and teachers can play an important role in helping children deal with loss. This Digest discusses psychological tasks that appear to be essential to children's adjustment, how children understand death and react to the death of a loved one, and how parents and teachers can help children cope with loss.
Children's "Tasks" During Mourning
The Harvard Child Bereavement Study (HCBS), co-directed by J. W. Worden, interviewed and tested 125 children between the ages of 6 and 17 and their families. Standardized instruments, such as the Smilansky Death Questionnaire and the Child Behavior Checklist, as well as interviews, were used in this study. Of these children, 74% had lost a father, and 26% had lost a mother. A similar group of 70 children who had not suffered such bereavement were similarly studied. Worden distinguished among four tasks of mourning for these children: (1) accepting the reality of loss, (2) experiencing the pain or emotional aspects of loss, (3) adjusting to an environment in which the deceased is missing, and (4) relocating the person within one's life and finding ways to memorialize the person (Worden, 1996, pp. 13-15).
Christian (1997), a professor of early childhood education who worked with families with AIDS, observes that, unlike adults, some children may not realize that they can survive without the deceased parent. Baker and Sedney (1996), based on clinical experience and interviews, list early tasks of bereavement for children including self-protection or the need for assurance that they will be safe and cared for. Understanding the death, another task, requires the provision of information to these children on how or why the death occurred. Some experts believe that vague abstractions may leave a child believing that deceased parents could return if they wanted to do so (Corr & Corr, 1996, pp. 120-121). As they mature, experts agree, children need to be able to ask questions about the death repeatedly and to work through their developing understanding of such a major event (Christian, 1997).
Reprinted with the permission of the Education Resources Information Center.
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