A study of children and grief : living through bereavement.
Jackson, Monica Ann.
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The high levels of HIV/AIDS and violent crime in South Africa mean that millions of children are being forced, and will continue to be forced, to deal with the death of a parent/primary caregiver in their early and middle childhood years. Acknowledging that does not lessen the apprehension and uneasiness which lingers in formal and informal discussions of children, death, dying and grief, nor does it ameliorate the fact that childhood bereavement is becoming a normative childhood experience in South Africa. It is vital, therefore, to understand what are South African children's experiences of bereavement and grief, and to explore what impacts are likely to be exerted on their development. Children do not grieve in the same way; and children's grief is influenced by factors such as environment, unique experiences, developmental level, personality, age and gender. Family, too, is important because it is still the primary institution of society, and it influences substantially how children understand death, bereavement and grief. The school, too, has an impact on childhood grief. The majority of school-going children in South Africa are in primary school grades. Attending primary school corresponds with (most often) middle childhood, which is a critically important developmental stage. The experience of bereavement and grief during middle childhood is challenging precisely because it occurs in such a sensitive emotionally, cognitively and socially developmental period. Childhood grief experienced in that period can have long-term consequences. Important, too, is the fact that school-going children will, more than for younger children, not only experience grief privately but will grieve in public settings such as the school setting. This study, therefore, was concerned with exploring and gaining insight into the dynamics of bereavement and grief as experienced by children, who were in middle childhood, and enrolled in the primary school system. An exploratory design was chosen to explore the issue. A purposive sample was drawn from the school's list of scholars, and included 25 children attending Grades Five to Seven (Senior Primary Phase) at a co-educational, English-medium, state school. Data were collected both qualitatively and quantitatively. Qualitative primary data collection, involving in-depth interviews, was chosen because it allowed the researcher to explore the issue from the children's own perspectives. Each child was interviewed by the researcher over two to three sessions. Quantitative secondary data collection, involving key demographic and academic information extracted from the school's records, was included, and that helped triangulate and contextualise the data collected in the interviews. This study found that children in middle childhood do experience a diverse range of grief responses to the death of their parents/primary caregivers in the school environment, among other places, and some of those grief responses were challenging. Although respondents experienced different and confusing emotions; and although some had had their grief acknowledged by significant others, while others had not, all were able to engage in honest, clear discussions about death and grief. Respondents reported experiencing a range of secondary losses associated with the initial loss on their daily lives, and that was especially so for girl children. Respondents did know how to access support services but had not done so. The respondents also expressed a need to be encouraged to remember and memorialize their dead parent/primary caregiver. The study found, too, that the more prepared and supported the bereaved child was prior to that death, the better s/he coped with the event. Understanding children's bereavement can help those individuals and organisations, which are responsible for children's optimal development, provide children with the necessary support to prevent the child's bereavement and grief from becoming a lasting trauma.