The following column appeared originally in April...

Coping /Mortal Matters

May 04, 1992|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,Universal Press Syndicate

The following column appeared originally in April 1989.

When families gather after a death, one characteristic seems to hold true: However somber the adults may be, young children, after a while, cannot resist the urge to scamper around, play and, in general, act like children.

That's because they are children, and their reactions to grief don't match those of adults. That doesn't mean children don't feel grief or know that something sad or final or tragic has occurred.

Children are highly attuned to the emotions of the people around them. But they grieve in their own way, and it's important that adults recognize a child's need for honesty, love and reassurance when death occurs.

As many as 5 percent of all children -- 1.5 million or so -- experience the death of one or both parents by the time they are 15. Many other children lose siblings, close friends or grandparents.

But the frequency with which death invades young lives does not make it less painful. And all too often, children confronting death for the first time are doing so along with adults who are immersed in or even immobilized by grief.

Sometimes adults' preoccupation with grief prevents them from seeing that a child's reaction to death is just as deep as theirs -- even though it may be expressed differently, depending on the child's age and stage of emotional development.

Unlike adults, who can sustain a continuous, prolonged stage of grieving, young children are most likely to exhibit their grief in spurts, perhaps over a period of several years. Just as adults react differently to grief, children also express their feelings in very personal ways.

Sometimes those expressions can startle adults. It's common for young children who lose a parent or sibling to resume playing soon after the death, as if nothing has happened. They may also make statements that seem glib to adults and ask the same questions over and over.

They may act in aggressive or hostile ways and seem not to care about the death. Within a few weeks, they may begin asking when the family will get a replacement for the lost parent or sibling.

When this happens, it's important for adults to remember that intense emotions are hard for young children to sustain. In these situations it's common for children to show "approach and avoidance" behavior -- approaching the loss, then backing away from the painful reality of what it means.

Otherwise, the reality of death would be too overwhelming to face.

Adults should recognize this process and allow a child the chance to grieve. Psychologists point out that what other people may regard as a child's "quick recovery" from the death of a family member may only signal more problems later on. Denying grief does not make it go away.

Children who are experiencing grief need a special measure of attention and support. And adults should be especially aware of a characteristic that all human beings seem to share -- the tendency to feel guilt about a death. It's especially important to reassure children that the death is not their fault, that their loved one did not die because of something the child did or failed to do.

Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.

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