by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
When someone a baby loves dies, knowing what to say or do can be difficult. How do you tell a toddler that his favorite grandpa is dead? What do you do when a baby whose mother has died cries all the time and refuses to eat?
Indeed, young children constitute a very special group of mourners. This article discusses some of their unique needs and will help you care for bereaved infants and toddlers up to age three.
Many adults think that because very young children are not completely aware of what is going on around them, they are not impacted by death. We must dispel this myth. I say it simply: Any child old enough to love is old enough to mourn.
True, infants and toddlers are not developmentally mature enough to fully understand the concept of death. In fact, many children do not truly understand the inevitability and permanence of death until adolescence.
But understanding death and being affected by it are two very different things. When a primary caregiver dies, even tiny babies notice and react to the loss. They might not know exactly what happened and why, but they do know that someone important is now missing from their small worlds.
Yes, even babies grieve. And when someone they love dies, children of all ages need our time and attention if they are to heal and grow to be emotionally healthy adults.
As anyone who has been around infants knows, babies quickly bond with their mothers or other primary caregivers. In fact, studies have shown that babies just hours old recognize and respond to their mothers’ voices. Many psychologists even believe that babies think they and their mothers are one and the same person for a number of months.
This powerful and exclusive attachment to mommy and daddy continues through most of the first year of life. When a parent dies, then, there is no question the baby notices that something is missing. She will likely protest her loss by crying more than usual, sleeping more or less than she did before or changing her eating patterns.
Like infants, bereaved toddlers mostly need our love and attention. They also need us to help them understand that though it is painful, grief is the price we pay for the priceless chance to love others. They need us to teach them that death is a normal and natural part of life.
Since the funeral is a significant event, children-no matter how young-should have the same opportunity to attend as any other member of the family. Encourage, but never force. Explain the purpose of the funeral to toddlers: a time to be happy about our love for Grandma, a time to be sad that she is gone, a time to say goodbye.
When they choose to, young children can participate in the funeral by lighting a candle or placing a momento or photo in the casket.
For toddlers, viewing the body of the person who died can also be a positive experience. It provides an opportunity for you to show them what death looks like. Explain that the person is not sleeping, but has stopped breathing and functioning altogether. As with attending the funeral, however, seeing the body should not be forced.
While taking an infant or toddler to the funeral may seem unimportant now, think what that inclusion will mean to her later. As a teenager and adult, she will feel good knowing that instead of being home with a babysitter, she was included in this meaningful ritual.
Very few of us remember things that happened before we were four or five years old. So though he may have one or two vague and fleeting memories from this time period, it is unlikely the bereaved infant or toddler will clearly remember the person who died.
But when they get older, bereaved children will naturally be curious about this important person they never had a chance to know. Was Grandma nice? What did Daddy look like?
You can help answer these questions by putting together a “memory box” for the bereaved child. Collect momentos and photos that might later be special to the child. Write down memories, especially those that capture the relationship between the person who died and the infant or toddler. If you have videotape footage of the deceased, place a copy in the memory box for safekeeping.
During my many years as a bereavement counselor, I have learned that remembering the past makes hoping for the future possible. You have the opportunity to help link the bereaved young child’s past and future.
A few bereaved infants and toddlers, typically those who do not receive sufficient love and attention after the death of a significant person in their lives, go on to develop what is called an “attachment disorder.” Children who experience multiple losses are also at risk.
Basically, young children with attachment disorders learn not to trust or love. When a child’s primary caregiver dies, for example, the child may unconsciously decide that this kind of separation is too painful. So to prevent it from happening again, he “detaches” himself emotionally from those around him.
How do you know if a child is “detached?” Usually it is obvious that something is wrong. Among the symptoms are a lack of ability to give and receive affection, cruelty to others or to pets, speech disorders, extreme control problems and abnormalities in eye contact. Accurate diagnoses can only be made by mental health professionals with training in this area. And while we don’t yet know all there is to know about attachment disorders, we do know that if a child has become detached it is important to seek help as early as possible. The older the child becomes, the more difficult it is to help him attach to others in healthy ways.
Remember, any child old enough to love is old enough to mourn. And infants and toddlers are certainly capable of loving. As caring adults, we have a responsibility to help them during this difficult time. With our love and attention, they will learn to understand their loss and grow to be emotionally healthy children, adolescents and adults.
Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt is a noted author, educator and practicing grief counselor. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado and presents dozens of grief-related workshops each year across North America. Among his books are Healing Your Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas and The Healing Your Grieving Heart Journal for Teens. For more information, write or call The Center for Loss and Life Transition, 3735 Broken Bow Road, Fort Collins, Colorado 80526, (970) 226-6050 or visit their website, www.centerforloss.com.
Copyright 2007, Center for Loss and Life Transition