How Children Cope with Death & Loss
Children a can only grieve according to what their developmental stage will allow them, and the skills necessary for coping with death are far more limited in a child than in an adult. (Webb, 1993) Although they are affected by the loss just as profoundly, they must approach this pain with a greater degree of emotional immaturity. Kids also tend to have far less social capital--fewer established relationships they can draw on for support. Thus, children face a more difficult task in coping with death and loss.
Children may approach the grief process in doses they can tolerate, switching back and forth between avoidance of the issue and grieving. (Osterweis, Solomon & Green, 1984) Due to an ignorance of social expectations regarding death, children may also cope in ways that are counterintuitive to what adults expect. We often forget how much of our own behavior is guided by learned associations and expectations about how to act that have been built up over a lifetime. Children have a lower comprehension level of death, mixed with a general ignorance of how other people expect they should act. Because of this, their coping processes may be more erratic, and we should expect them to behave or act in ways that differ from our own methods of coping.
Parental loss in particular deprives children of an enormously significant source of affection and support at the very time when they need it most. (Tremblay & Israel, 1998) Furthermore, it's common for the surviving parent to be overwhelmed with their own grief and suffering from depression. This tends to make a caretaker lethargic, distant, or unresponsive. As a result, the child may be left feeling unimportant. (Worden, 1996) So children may struggle to deal not only with their own grief, but often have to cope with a surviving parent who is struggling themselves. This places further strain on their ability to cope with the loss.
Children may cope through security items
Children may develop attachments to certain places or comfort items. Perhaps they have a special spot they like to go when feeling sad, or a particular comfort item they want to have around. This is a perfectly natural part of the grieving process, and children should be allowed as much leeway as possible when it comes to these comfort items.
Defense mechanisms utilized by kids in coping with death
Because children often lack crucial coping skills, they are more likely to use a variety of defense mechanisms to help them recover during bereavement. (Emswiler & Emswiler, 2000) Here are some of the more common methods:
Denial as a defensive coping mechanism
Many kids, unable to directly face the painful reality of loss, may use denial as a coping strategy. There are two distinct forms of denial commonly used. Cognitive denial occurs when a child is aware of the loss and its details, but approaches the loss with skepticism. For instance, a child who knows their parent was killed in a car accident may nonetheless outwardly express the belief that his mother has actually gone to visit grandma in Arkansas and will return shortly. Although the child inwardly knows the truth, lying to themselves like this can take the edge off of death or postpone the process of dealing with its implications. It's the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass for grieving: If you invent a scenario in which there is even the slightest chance that the death was not real, then hope is not completely lost, and it can dull the painful feelings. A second form is affective denial, which occurs when a child accepts the loss cognitively, but does not express or allow emotions that are congruent with the loss. (Lenhardt & McCourt, 2000) In other words, emotional denial.
Splitting as a defensive coping mechanism Splitting involves the child transferring emotions they feel onto other people or objects as a way of distancing themselves from their painful feelings. It's an attempt to position themselves on the outside looking in; a casual observer who is watching a story unfold but not involved themselves. Splitting may occur in an attempt to keep negative emotions at a manageable level, or as a way of expressing feelings or desires that they believe are taboo or not accepted by others. (Emswiler & Emswiler, 2000) Feelings that a child believes are unacceptable or unmanageable are then attributed to other people, toys, or pets. For example, a child may make statements such as: "Teddy feels sad, but I don't...I bet Fido really misses daddy and cries for him, but I stay strong and don't cry...Dolly says that she hates Grandma and is really mad at her." Children project their own state of mind to the outside world, so whenever you hear such transferences, you can be confident that a child is feeling whatever it is they are