“I'm going crazy. We just lost our six-month-old child to cot death. My wife is devastated and can't get out of bed. My five-year-old son's school is complaining about him constantly stirring up trouble.”
Although Tim is a busy executive, he took leave from work to look after his wife and son after the terrible event of losing their second child three weeks ago.
“I've tried to keep Nathan from disturbing his mother. She needs time to get over this,” Tim says. “I just wish Nathan would be more cooperative.”
According to Time, Nathan has been a well-adjusted child. Even though he was a bit jealous of his newborn sister, he was not aggressive. His behavior at school—hitting other boys and pulling girls' hair—is out of character. What's more, Nathan has been wetting his bed, which he hasn't done for some time.
Tim choked up. “I want my family back. I can't wait to get over this terrible time in our life and move on to a new page.”
Tim's son's behavior is a clear reaction to the sudden changes in his family and to the loss of his little sister. He is confused, fearful, and guilty. Additionally, he is not coping well with Tim's way of managing the current family situation.
As a young child, Nathan doesn't understand the complexity of death. However, he can sense major changes in his life. His mother no longer gets up in the morning to take him to school. She seems to keep to herself without offering him the usual kisses and hugs. His father is suddenly around all the time, yet he's no longer the fun playmate Nathan used to know. From Nathan's point of view, everyone is unhappy with him. The natural conclusion is that he must have done something wrong.
Young children such as Nathan may not be able to sort out all their inner feelings, yet they can be very in tune with their immediate environment. If adults do not spell out the specific changes, it leaves room for children to fill in the unknown with their imaginations. For example, Nathan was told that his little sister was taken away to be with the “Heavenly Father”, while in the meantime, his parents seem distant. Therefore, Nathan may believe that he is responsible for his sister being taken away. He may wonder whether hugging his siter too tightly caused her to “sleep for a long, long time”.
The sudden death of a loved one can take people by surprise and leave them with feelings of guilt and helplessness.
Nathan's way of dealing with his nervousness and confusion is to act out at school. Since the birth of his little sister, he learned to cope with the reduction in attention from his parents. Yet now that little sister is gone, the love and attention from his parents seem to have disappeared. He is scared and upset because his world seems to have fallen apart. Nathan's disruptive behavior at school was his way of seeking attention and letting out emotions.
Helping Nathan has to start with his dad. Tim needs to accept his own grief. Keeping himself busy with chores is simply his way of distracting himself from the pain. The acknowledgement of his own feelings of sorrow will allow him to demonstrate to Nathan that it is okay to be sad. By doing so, he will give permission for Nathan to ask questions and express his fear and confusion. When responding, Time should use language Nathan can understand. At age five, most children have some sense of the permanence of death. Adults must understand that children don't always grieve as grownups do.
The earlier the grieving is dealt with, the earlier people will come to acceptance. Tim and his wife should lend support to each other by openly grieving over the loss of their baby girl without hiding it from Nathan.
Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign is a Hong Kong-based psychologist and author of the book Keep Your Life, Family and Career Intact While Living Abroad. She is the former columnist for the South China Morning Post and American in Britain on topics of psychology and adjustment for expatriates and their families.