Children between the ages of 6-10 mourn in distinct ways. Like younger children, this group is unable to endure long periods of crying and mourning and therefore alternate between sadness and maintaining their regular routine. They also may have difficulty expressing their feelings in a conversation. Thus, it is especially important to pay attention to nonverbal behavior, particularly during play.
It is also during this time that children begin to understand the meaning of death, and can experience deep grief. At this stage children begin to understand, painfully, the finality of death. They may also remember a previous experience and suddenly mourn a loss that they experienced at an earlier age in addition to the current loss. This occurs because it is only now that they understand that death and separation are final and irreversible.
Death has a profound impact on a child’s sense of security, especially if the deceased was someone who was close to the child, such as a parent. In such cases the child may develop an intense fear of suddenly losing another parent or caregiver or of dying themselves. Children at this age will come up with all sorts of questions, some of which may seem insensitive to adults. It is important to allow children to ask their questions, and to provide answers even if they may be in the form of “I don’t know” or “I need to think about it.”
Alternatively, children may pretend that the death never happened or may regress to behavior typical of younger children, such as bed-wetting, clinging to a parent, or thumb-sucking. All of these behaviors are normal and reflect the child’s way of coping as best they can.
Common Characteristics of Bereavement
While each child reacts to death in their own way there are a number of typical behaviors common to children this age who are coping with death:
Children see death as something external that catches up with people and “gets them.” Children often do not understand the causes of death, and cannot distinguish between non-fatal and fatal illness. This confusion may contribute to their sense that death is unexpected and can happen to anyone, at any time, including themselves.
Asking the same questions over and over again
At this age children are preoccupied with the idea that they or another loved one may suddenly die without warning. As part of processing the fact that a loved one has died, they may ask the same questions repeatedly, even if they have already been given full explanations. They tend to focus on specifics: “How did she die?” “What disease got him?” “Is that different than a cold?” It is important to be patient and answer the child every time he or she asks a question. This is the child’s way of processing this difficult experience and beginning to adjust to the new reality of life without their loved one.
A child may be angry at the deceased for abandoning them, and at the unfairness of the world. In other cases, the child may display anger at others who are still alive. This anger may stem from the helplessness you child feels in the face of death.
The child may feel at times that the death was his or her fault because of something that he or she did or said. A child may subsequently try to improve his or her behavior in order to bring the person back or may express a wish to die too, to atone for what he or she did and in an effort to rejoin the departed. It is essential to explain to the child the true cause of the death and to state clearly, even repetitively, that it was not the child is not to blame.
Children may experience mood swings similar to those of adults, ranging from withdrawal, occasional crying, or angry outbursts. Children may also experience difficulty in concentrating, or social difficulties in school and at activities.
Children this age may report difficulty falling asleep, or sleep that is disturbed by nightmares. A child may also experience loss of appetite, or refuse to eat. These are symptoms that typically occur in the immediate aftermath of loss, and generally recede within a short period of time.
Many children will revert to earlier behaviors following the death of a loved one, such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking. Added to the distress caused by the loss of their loved one is shame they feel at their own behaviors, especially if they take place among peers.