When a parent or caregiver dies, a child’s sense of security is naturally threatened. Although every child will cope with the death of a caregiver in their own way, it is critical to help children feel safe and supported especially early in the bereavement process. With the appropriate tailored supports, children can continue to progress along their developmental trajectory as they grow with their grief. Healthcare providers play a vital role in supporting grieving children.
Children's reactions to the death of a caregiver
The loss of a parent or primary caregiver can have a devastating effect on a child. Feelings of insecurity are common, and children will be concerned as to ‘who will look after me now?’ This may appear insensitive, but children live in a very concrete world and need to know that they will continue to be cared for. They can also fear that their other parent is going to die and will need lots of reassurance around this.
Following such a loss, children may feel it is their duty to take on the responsibilities of the parent who has died, even when nobody expects this of them. It is just something that some children feel they have to do. This is a heavy burden for them to bear and they will need lots of reassurance that this is neither an expected nor appropriate role for them to take on. In time, everyone may be able to adjust to living life as it has become, with new routines and ways of doing things.
A grandparent who was very involved with a child’s care will be probably be missed more than one who was rarely seen, but it is important not to make assumptions. A death that appears to be not very significant can trigger feelings around other losses.
How the caregiver died may impact a child's reaction
How someone died will affect a child’s response. A sudden death allows no time to prepare for what happens, no opportunity to say goodbye. There is also a feeling of being left suspended, or with unfinished business. When a caregiver dies unexpectedly in a traffic accident, or even more traumatically through murder or suicide, the immediate reaction is shock and total numbness. Young people may feel immense pain at their loss, and anger with the person who has died and left them. Frustration at missing out on planned activities together, which can now never happen, is another response. They may have bitter regrets about something they said, or wish they had said, but never got the chance.
Considering all of the above, we might assume that an expected death is easier to bear than a sudden one. This is not always the case, they are just different. For children and young people, the death of someone who has been ill for some time can still be a huge shock, especially if they have not been kept aware of the seriousness of the situation.