Helping Infants and Toddlers When Someone They Love Dies
When Someone a Baby Loves Dies
When someone a baby loves passes, knowing what to say or do can be difficult. How do you explain to a toddler that his favorite grand-parent has passed away? What do you do when a baby's parent passes away? 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.
Yes, Even Babies Grieve
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. 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 finality of death until adolescence. 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. When someone they love passes, children of all ages need our time and attention if they are to heal and grow to be emotionally healthy adults.
The Special Needs of Bereaved Infants
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 is 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 passes away 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.
- Offer Comfort
When they are upset, most infants are soothed by physical contact. Pick up the bereaved infant when he / she cry. Wear him in a front pack; he will be calmed by your heartbeat and motion. Give a gentle baby massage. Talk and smile as much as possible. Do not worry about spoiling him. The more you hold him, rock him and sing to him, the more readily he will realize that though things have changed, someone will always be there to take care of him.
- Take Care of Basic Needs
Besides lots of love, an infant needs to be fed, sheltered, diapered and bathed. Try to maintain the bereaved baby's former schedule. Don't be surprised if she sleeps or eats more or less than usual. Such changes are a way of showing grief. If the baby starts waking up several times a night, soothe him / her back to sleep. If the baby doesn't have an appetite, don't worry. The most important thing you can do is to meet her needs-whatever they seem to be-quickly and lovingly in the weeks and months to come.
The Special Needs of Bereaved Toddlers
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.
- Offer Comfort and Care
The bereaved toddler needs one-on-one care 24 hours a day. Make sure someone the baby loves and trusts is always there to feed, clothe, diaper and play with them. Unless the baby is already comfortable with a certain provider, now is not the time to put him / her in daycare. Expect regressive behaviors from bereaved toddlers. Those who slept well before may now wake up during the night. Independent children may now be afraid to leave their parents' side. Formerly potty-trained kids may need diapers again. All of these behaviors are normal grief responses. They are the toddler's way of saying, "I'm upset by this death and I need to be taken care of right now. By tending to her baby-like needs, you will be letting the baby know that he / she will be taken care of and that she is loved without condition.
- Model Your Own Grief
Toddlers learn by imitation. If you grieve in healthy ways, toddlers will learn to do the same. Don't hide your feelings when you're around children. Instead, share them. Cry if you want to. Be angry if you want to. Let the toddler know that these painful feelings are not directed at him / her and it's not their fault. Sometimes you may feel so overwhelmed by your own grief that you can't make yourself emotionally available to the bereaved toddler. You needn't feel guilty about this; it's OK to need some "alone time" to mourn. In fact, the more fully you allow yourself to do your own work of mourning, the sooner you'll be available to help the child. In the meantime, make sure other caring adults are around to nurture the bereaved toddler.
- Use Simple, Concrete Language
When someone a toddler loves passes away, he / she will know that person is missing. The toddler may ask for Mommy or Uncle Ted one hundred times a day. I recommend saying "she went to heaven" or she has passed away in response to his / her queries. Say, "Mommy has passed away, honey. She can never come back." Though he / she won't yet know what "passed away" means, he / she will begin to differentiate it from "bye-bye" or "gone" or "sleeping"-terms that only confuse the issue. Using simple, concrete language is important remember more than two-thirds of your support will be conveyed non-verbally.
- Keep Change to a Minimum
All toddlers need structure, but bereaved toddlers, especially, need their daily routines. Keeping mealtimes, bedtime and bath time the same lets them know that their life continues and that they will always be cared for. Try not to implement changes right away. Now is not the time to go from a crib to a bed, to potty train or to wean from a bottle.
Allow Them to Participate
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 memento or photo in the casket. For toddlers, viewing the body of the person who passed can be a positive experience. It provides an opportunity for you to show them what death looks like. Explain that the person is not sleeping. 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.
Help Infants and Toddlers "Remember"
Very few of us remember things that happened before we were four or five years old. 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 passed away. 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 mementos and photos that might later be special to the child. Write down memories, especially those that capture the relationship between the deceased 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.
Be Aware of Attachment Disorders
A few bereaved infants and toddlers, typically those who do not receive sufficient love and attention after the demise 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 passes away, 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. 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 grieve. 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.