Drop of Life Clinicians utilises information from our learning and experience and bring it to our practice and blogs.
Grief and loss in children with intellectual disabilities
Pamela L. Harding,
Psychologist (B Psych; P Grad Dip Psych)
Children grieve the loss of someone special in many different ways. For children with developmental delay, concepts such as death can be difficult to understand and the implications of that loss (permanence) can vary accordingly. It is important for parents and carers to take the time to explain loss in ways that are developmentally appropriate, taking into account the child’s emotional maturity as well as the child’s language and intellectual development.
Reactions to grief vary in every child however typically these can be physical, psychological, behavioural, and spiritual in nature. In young children as well as in children who have developmental delay, these reactions are often difficult to identify as the ability to express complex emotions is still largely under developed.
It is therefore important to pay close attention to children’s behaviours following a loss, being aware that reactions can vary in intensity, frequency and duration depending on the type of support the child receives.
Typical grief reactions observed can include:
Strategies that can be helpful in supporting children during times of loss:
1. Ensure that basic needs are met (food, drink, sleep, affection)
2. Routine: keeping things as normal as possible is important in that it provides the child with a sense of safety and predictability which allows him/her to regain some control over their environment.
3. Provide reassurance: regardless of whether or not the child’s reaction is as you would expect, provide reassurance that their feelings are normal and that the sadness will eventually decrease.
4. Help understanding: explain what has happened as honestly as possible, using simple factual language. “Poppy has died and won’t be coming back”
5. Explain death: be concrete, use age appropriate visual resources such as books, social stories and play to help understanding.
6. Allow opportunities for the child to express their grief: this can include reading and telling stories, playing, drawing, making a memory box.
7. Be consistent in your answers: children may want to ask questions over and over again. It is important for you to provide answers that are consistent, simple and factual as this allows the child to make sense of what has happened.
8. Make use of rituals and symbols at home: prepare a farewell ceremony. Have photographs of the person and take turns talking to him/her to say farewell.