This free extract from the Alliance publication Supporting Children’s Experiences of Loss and Separation, looks at a case study examining possible reactions from a young child to an experience of loss, how their experience and feelings may differ dramatically to any adults involved in the situation, and how the child could be supported through the experience.
How do we recognise that a young child may be experiencing loss and going through the grieving process? Reality can be very different to perception.
Children tend to have difficulty in accepting the permanence of a situation; timescales such as a week, a month, or six months mean absolutely nothing to a child. The effects of a loss, no matter what that loss may be, can trigger reactions such as grief, which can have a detrimental effect on the emotional well‐being of the child who feels ‘abandoned’.
For instance, adults may regard the loss of a child’s favourite toy as minor and just an inconvenience. However, for a child this can be completely traumatising and trigger a similar emotional response as a death would to an adult. A child does not have the ability to rationalise, and a very young child may not be able to articulate his or her thoughts and feelings. A favourite teddy or doll can be comforting and a friend to the child that is very real.
(4 years old ‐ in his own words, if he could express himself in this way)
"I am not feeling happy. Last week I lost my favourite teddy bear, Fred. I know he was a bit old and tatty, but we did everything together. He came to nursery with me every day and kept me company in bed every night. I have looked everywhere, but I just cannot find him.
I told Mummy and Daddy. They tried to cheer me up with my favourite pudding; it was really yummy and I felt a bit better for a while. But at bedtime I missed Fred again and kept waking up, so I was tired the next day. People at nursery asked what was wrong and one of my friends lent me his teddy bear, which was very kind but it wasn’t the same as having Fred.
Something has been going on with Mummy and Daddy; they were whispering a lot, and Daddy went out in the car without me and wouldn’t say where he was going. When he came back, he looked really pleased and I became really excited as I thought he must have found Fred. He handed me a bag and in it was a brand new bear ‐ he looked a bit like Fred, but was too new and the eyes were funny. I wanted to smile and say ‘thank you’ but started crying and ran to my bedroom, crying for Fred. Mummy and Daddy seem angry that I am not happy, and have told me that the new bear cost a lot of money and that Daddy made a special trip to buy him. I don’t like making them upset, but all I want is for Fred to come back.”
Keith’s perspective (Simon’s father)
“I can’t understand what is wrong with Simon. He is behaving like a spoilt child and it is all because he has lost the silly, old, worn out bear he kept carrying around with him. I know that poor Simon was upset, but the teddy bear was in such a state anyway that it was probably time to get a new one. I took the day off work and secretly went to the big toy shop in town. I couldn’t believe how expensive toy bears were, but I managed to find a brand new one that looked like the one he lost and didn’t mind paying the money as I wanted him to be happy again.
When he opened up the package at home, I expected him to be really pleased and excited, but he got even more upset and started crying. Now he is even worse than before. I can’t believe I have gone to all that effort for nothing. I don’t know what to do to make things better.”
So what does Simon’s story tell us?
The parents in this case study see the teddy bear simply as a toy – a plaything, which can be replaced easily. Simon, on the other hand, sees Fred; who is real, with a character, thoughts, feelings and emotions. In his mind, Fred is a trusted friend, who will cuddle him to sleep, wake up with him and take part in his play and daily life. Simon is experiencing a grief response and simply wants Fred back in his life. The parents do not recognise this and until they gain the understanding that his sense of loss is very real they will not be able to understand Simon’s behaviour, or comfort him, and will remain frustrated.
As adults, if we felt that our feelings were not being understood or listened to, we would feel indignant and insulted. We need to give the young child the consideration and respect that we would give to an adult. What is required here is some empathy for the way Simon is feeling and an acknowledgement that his sense of loss, though in many ways trivial, is still very significant to him.
This is a free extract from the Alliance publication,Supporting Children’s Experiences of Loss and Separation.
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