Your five-year-old daughter tearfully enters the house with a dead bird in her hand, your beloved family pet dies, your eleven-year-old son’s favorite soccer coach dies suddenly, or your children’s favorite aunt dies after fighting breast cancer for several years. Opportunities for talking with children about death can present themselves in many of life’s big and small moments. As a parent how do you help your child or teen when he/she is confronted with a death?
Some children are faced with significant losses such as the death of a parent or sibling that are dramatic and life changing. However, for most families, children are introduced to death through the less traumatic examples mentioned above. Death is part of life. As supportive, nurturing parents we can make use of these teachable moments to explain the idea of death in ways that are understandable to children.
There are numerous experts in the field of death and grief and much has been written on the topic of helping children deal with losses resulting from death. Drawing from ten years of working with grieving families and the wealth of literature available, the following has been prepared for parents who want to know more about how to help, support and guide children through grief.
We want to protect our children from painful things. That’s our job as parents. When a death occurs, it’s natural to want to protect them, perhaps by shielding them from what has occurred. However children usually learn the facts in one way or another, overhearing adults, other kids talking, or in some cases television. Children are people readers. They can feel your emotions. They can know if you’re not telling the truth. When children don’t feel that they are being told the truth, they are left to invent their own truth. Or, left wondering why their parent isn’t being up-front with them.
Joy Johnson writes in her book Keys to Helping Children Deal with Death and Grief “the best way to protect a child is not to pretend a death didn’t happen, that grief isn’t real. The best way to protect a child is to give them the keys to coping with grief, to walk through it with them, answering questions honestly and allowing them to be a part of this vital family event.”
Share Your Feelings
Just as we feel a need to protect children, our children are protective of us. Children will model the behavior they observe from the adults around them. Children look to their parents for cues about grieving – from how to talk about the death, to what emotions are acceptable. For example, by talking about the deceased grandparent, a child is given permission to do the same. Sometimes parents want to hide their grief from their children, thinking that the sadness will upset them. Yet it’s important for a child to know that it’s acceptable to cry, feel angry, in other words, to grieve. As well, let your child know that all feelings are okay. They are not good or bad; feelings are just feelings, including sad, happy, angry, scared, guilt, relief, fear, confusion, etc.
Use Real Words
Use age appropriate language when talking to your child about death. Using words such as lost, she’s just sleeping and even passed away, or passed on can be confusing to a young child. Especially “she’s just sleeping” can cause nightmares to a child. When a young child asks what dead means, talk to them about the body no longer working. For example; when someone dies, everything inside the person stops. The heart stops. The breathing stops. They don’t eat or go to the bathroom anymore. The thinking and feeling stops too. It does not hurt to be dead.
The Dougy Center’s publication, 35 Ways to Help a Grieving Child, addresses the fact that kids learn by asking questions. “When they ask questions about a death, it’s usually a sign that they’re curious about something they don’t understand. . . As an adult, one of the most important things you can do for children is to let them know that all questions are okay to ask.” If you don’t know the answer to a child’s question, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”
A child’s understanding of death depends upon his developmental level. Young children, up to the age of six or seven, are not able to grasp the finality of death. Therefore, it would not be unusual for a young child to talk about a deceased grandparent returning for her upcoming birthday. A parent’s best response to her daughter’s insistence that Pop Pop will return, is simply, Pop Pop is dead and he can’t come back and that you miss Pop Pop as much as she misses him. It is not unusual for a child to ask the same question or make the same statement several times. They need your patience in answering them each time as though it was the first time.
Understand Your Child’s Developmental Stage
Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., author of Healing the Bereaved Child, speaks to the fact that children mourn in doses – or on an intermittent basis. The apparent lack of feeling witnessed at times is a normal defense reflected in their inability to tolerate acute pain for long periods of time. For example, a child might share an emotional scene of what it was like when her mom died, and then several minutes later, be engaged with a group of kids laughing and playing basketball.
In the book, 35 Ways to Help a Grieving Child, The Dougy Center reports that children, ages 6 to 11-years of age understand the finality of death. They may ask more detailed questions about the death and are able to have a more grown-up understanding of what death is. However, they still tend to “play out” rather than talk through their feelings around a death.
The teenage years themselves are a grief experience. Teens are experiencing the loss of their childhood – no more cuddling and getting read to and played with. Yet they have not reached adulthood where they make their own decisions. Consequently, they will turn to their peers for support. Given the natural egocentrism that accompanies adolescence, teens may also be wrapped up in their personal emotional response to a death. Teens are also focused on the meaning of life questions, and need to address the “why” questions about death.
Talk About and Remember the Person Who Died
Again, children look to the parent for cues regarding grieving. Bringing up the name of the person who died is one way to give children permission to share their feelings about the deceased. It reminds them that it is not taboo to talk about the deceased. Sharing a memory has a similar effect. As well, it helps children understand that although Aunt Sue is dead she lives on in the wonderful memories that the family can talk about and share with each other. Though it may be hard for adults, children often benefit from photos and/or mementos around the house. For example, a piece of jewelry or an old shirt to sleep in can be comforting.
Consistency and Routines are Helpful
When a death occurs life can feel chaotic, unsafe and unpredictable. Therefore, it is important to continue established routines; it brings children comfort and can help make them feel safe.
Should your Child Attend the Funeral?
Parents often wonder whether a child, son, daughter or grandchild should attend a funeral of a family member. Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., suggests that children should be encouraged to attend and participate in funerals, but never forced. Most children handle attending services very well. If parents were close to the person who has died, they may want to appoint a family friend to accompany the child so that the parents focus on the service.
If the child wants to attend the funeral, a parent can help by explaining what will happen, before, during and after the ceremony. If the body is to be viewed, let the child know in advance. Explain what the body and casket will look like. If the body is to be cremated, explain what cremation means and what happens to the ashes. Remind the child that because the person is dead he doesn’t feel pain or anything during the cremation. Letting the child know that people will be crying and laughing and sharing memories of the dead person is also helpful.
Help children understand why we have funerals: that it is a time of sadness because someone has died, but it is also a time to remember the person and help comfort and support each other.
Finally it can be extremely comforting for a child or teen to take part in the funeral ritual. A child may want to share a favorite memory or read a special poem as part of the funeral. Other ways for children to be included in the service are by lighting a candle or placing a special memento, note or photograph in the casket.
Following is “The Language of Funerals” from Healing the Bereaved Child, that parents may find helpful when preparing a child to attend a funeral.
- Ashes: What is left of a dead body after cremation. Looks like ashes from a fire.
- Burial: Placing the body, which is inside a casket into the ground.
- Casket: A special box for burying a dead body.
- Cemetery: A place where many dead bodies are buried.
- Cremation: Reducing the body by heat to small pieces of bone.
- Dead: When a person’s body stops working. It doesn’t see, hear, feel, eat, breath,etc., anymore.
- Funeral: A time when friends and families get together to say goodbye and remember the person who died.
- Funeral Home: A place where bodies are kept until they are buried.
- Grave: The hole in the ground where the body is buried at the cemetery.
- Hearse: The special car that takes the dead body in the casket to the grave at the cemetery.
- Obituary: A short article in the newspaper that tells about the person who died.
- Pallbearer: The people who help carry the casket at the funeral.
- Viewing: The time when people can see the body of the person who died.
Finally, our hope is that the information we have provided gives you the tools to help your child along the path of grieving. As Alex Amar, an Abington Memorial Hospital Hospice Social Worker and a grief counselor with her own private practice, aptly puts it: grieving is a family affair. Children learn about all aspects of life by their parents’ examples and dealing with a loss is no exception. As children learn healthy grieving from their parents, they grow up to be strong, compassionate and loving adults.
Safe Harbor, a program for grieving children, teens and their familiesAbington Memorial Health Center Schilling Campus, Pennwood Building, 4th Floor, 2500 Maryland Road, Willow Grove, PA 19090 215-481-5983 www.amh.org email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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