Discussing Death with Children

Perhaps one of the most difficult situations parents ever face is telling their children that a loved one has died. We are afraid children won't understand death, or that they'll be crushed emotionally. Most likely, we have no idea when to tell them or what to say.

In fact, children understand more than we think. "They know about death," says Rabbi Earl Grollman, author of "Talking About Death: a Dialogue between Parent and Child" and several other books on death and dying. "Death education begins when a leaf falls from a tree, or when they see a dead animal in the street. Even at the age of two or three, they ask about death."

So if someone close to your child has died, you shouldn't try to avoid telling her. Children can and do handle death well - often better than the adults around them. Like adults, children need to come to terms with death and the grief that accompanies it.

Telling a Child About Death

When a death occurs, someone close to the child should tell her - preferably a parent, or a grandparent if a parent cannot. The child should be told as soon as possible. News of a death travels quickly, and parents who delay telling the children run the risk that they'll hear about from friends. By trying to avoid hurting children, you could expose them to a bigger hurt and shock later.

Once you've told your child that someone has died, you need to explain to her what will happen next. Tell her about the wake or visitation if there will be one, about the funeral, and about burial.

Of course, your child will likely have many questions. What a child will want to know depends on her age and any previous experience she's had with death. Generally, pre-schoolers don't understand death as final; they may ask, "When is Grandma coming back?" After all, cartoon characters on TV are killed every week, only to return again. Children at play say, "Bang, your dead," knowing that the "dead" person can get up and walk away at any time.

Between ages five and ten, children come to understand that death is final - but they may believe only old people and accident victims die. If a relatively young person dies, children in this age group may demand to know why. Past the age of ten, children begin to understand that death is part of the natural order of things, and that people die at all ages for a number of reasons.

Rabbi Grollman says that when children have questions, parents should make sure they know what the child is really asking, then answer simply and "don't over answer." If they ask, "Why did Grandpa die?" they will probably be satisfied to know that he got very sick. If they want more details, they'll ask for them.

It's also important to be honest. Don't say, "Grandpa went to sleep forever." The children may be terrified of falling asleep and never waking. Don't say, "Grandpa is in heaven, watching after you." The child may fear he or she has been burdened with an all-seeing, and all-knowing spy. Don't say that "God loved your daddy so much, He called him back to heaven." Your child may be angry that God took her daddy, or fear being taken herself. Again, just try to answer all questions as simply and honestly as possible. And don't feel that you must answer every question. If a child asks, "Why did Uncle John have a heart attack?" and you don't know, just say so.

Children should also be reassured that, although a parent has died, the other parent will still be here; that the child will still live in the same house, sleep in the same bed and go to the same school.

However, children have some naive ideas about death that you should address without being asked. Children often conclude that they somehow caused the death. They may think, "I was bad, so Mommy left," or "I wished my sister would die, and she did." Tell your child it's not his or her fault that someone died. If a loved one - especially a brother or a sister - died of a disease, reassure the child that he's healthy and won't die of same disease.

A Child's Reactions to Death

Children are people, and in many ways they react to death like the rest of us. They may feel shock or deny at first that death has occurred. They may become angry and blame others for the death, or become angry at the person who died for leaving. They may feel guilty for not being "good" to the person who died, and they may become depressed.

Children can also react to death in surprising and erratic ways. They may greet the news of a loved one's death with nothing more than a shrug, then express their grief in subtle ways later. They may regress and begin sucking their thumbs, wetting the bed, or otherwise acting like infants. They may become hostile with playmates, or they may express their grief and anger by treating their toys violently. They may imagine or pretend that they are dying. They may exhibit curiosity about the hearse, casket, and vault and grave. This is just normal curiosity. In short, there is no "normal" or correct way for children to grieve.

Helping a Child Cope with Death

Like adults, children need to grieve, to accept that death has occurred and get on with their lives. Your child will take cues from you, so don't be afraid to express your own grief. Cry if you want to, and let your child cry with you. Don't tell your child to "be brave, don't cry." This is a sad situation, and the child needs to express his or her sadness.

Talk to your child, and encourage him to as well. If the child wants to talk about the deceased, allow it. Show the child that it's okay by talking about the deceased yourself. Even if your child is too young to talk about the death, you can still share your emotions. Hugging and touching will comfort young children who can sense anguish in the family, even if they don't understand what has happened. Children surrounded by sadness need to be assured that they are loved.

It's a good idea to take your child to a funeral - but don't force him if he doesn't want to go. A funeral serves a number of psychological purposes, for children as well as adults. Children, like adults, need to share their grief. The funeral provides a focus for grief, allowing people to come together and express their feelings. Funerals give meaning to the experience of death, and can be an important lesson for children.

Children must receive a careful explanation of the funeral before they decide whether or not to attend. If the decision is to attend, then the parent must provide an even more descriptive explanation of what will happen at the funeral.

If you try to protect your child by keeping him or her away from the funeral, you will likely make the child feel shut out or rejected. Children need to understand on an emotional level that death has occurred. A funeral is an important step in confirming that death has occurred, and people who don't attend the funeral of a loved one sometimes suffer from unresolved grief later.

Remember, your child's relationship to the deceased hasn't ended - only changed. After the funeral, keep pictures and other reminders of the deceased around to spark conversations with your child. This will help form a new set of emotional bonds with the person who died.

It's very difficult to say when a child needs counseling to overcome unresolved grief. The grief process is not a series of neat, separate stages; it is more like an emotional rollercoaster ride. Feelings of depression or anger or sadness can come roaring back months after the death.

However, if a child seems beset by prolonged anger, denial, sickness or listlessness, it is a good idea to seek counseling. Ask your pediatrician or clergyman to suggest a child counselor who has experience with grief therapy. Your funeral director can also help guide you to qualified counselors. If nothing else, you and your child may discover that his reactions are normal and feel better for knowing it.

Copyright@ 1996 National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA)



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