Question: My husband was killed in a car accident 3 weeks ago and I am worried our 5 year old son is not accepting his death. I hear him talking to his dad when he is playing in his room with his toys. Is this normal and how will I know if he needs to see a counselor?
Answer: I am sorry for the death of your husband. Grief is a very personal experience. I would like to share with you ways you can help your child through this most difficult experience as you allow me to walk with you on this journey.
As I offer grief assistance for your child I also want to address grief in general. As your child’s primary caregiver, your experience of grief will also impact your child’s grief and his yours as well.
Initially most people’s first response at a time of grief is shock and denial. The initial awareness of the death or loss is too overwhelming for the mind and emotions to comprehend so the body has a built in mechanism to protect itself from the full impact of the loss through shock and denial. Shock and denial is most often seen in sudden death or unexpected death situations as opposed to death at a time of prolonged illness. For some shock and denial lasts for days and weeks; others for months. Shock and denial are normal in the grieving process.
Another response at death is anger and questioning of why or “what if.” The circumstances of the death often provide this response. “Why did this happen?” “What if I had done . . . maybe he/she would not have died.” The pain of grief seeks a reason and purpose. Feelings of guilt over the death are often a way to blame someone or something for the hurt and pain of grief. When we blame ourselves for how we responded through the dying process, survivor guilt is often operating. While each person’s time table in grief is different, this response at death may last weeks, months or even years.
The time frame for grief is different for every person but the sheer passage of time takes grief to new levels. We never “get over grief.” We learn to live with grief. The purpose of grief as I see it is to move the very painful experience of the heart and emotions to happy memories of that loved one.
When that happens, we understand the purpose of grief: because love never dies. The happy memories of that loved one allow the love to continue and the life of that person to continue to have meaning and purpose.
When it comes to helping a child understand the death of a loved one and experience the grieving process, I take into account the age of the child and the circumstances of the death. In an extended illness, I help the child understand that their loved one was not just sick but “very very sick.” This allows the child to understand that a person can get well if he/she gets sick such as with a cold or the flu as opposed to being “very very sick.” Children can learn that all things die such as plants, animals and even people. Children can walk through the funeral and burial experience with other family members as we answer their questions with simple explanations.
Often children will talk to their toys and imaginary friends in their play. It would not be uncommon to talk to his dad as he plays out the death and questions he has over what has happened to his dad. Offer him the opportunity to draw a picture of he and his dad together and the happy times they had together. Answer any questions he has about what happened to his dad as honestly as you can using simple terms.
Your child will want to know that his mom will be ok. While it is ok and natural and cry over missing dad, you may need to have adult friends to help you process your feelings of grief. I have not found it helpful for children to make frequent trips to the cemetery. Some adults find comfort in going to the cemetery and others do not. However children in my experience do not often feel the need to go to the cemetery as some adults.
You asked how to know when your child may need to see a counselor. If your child begins to regress in his development, lose weight, have frequent nightmares, etc. he/she may need to see a doctor and/or a counselor. Play therapy is often used to assist a child in the grieving process so that the child does not “get stuck” in grief or develop complicated grief.