Handling the death of a close friend or family member is difficult for adults, and it is even more complex when it comes to a child’s acceptance of the event.
Although death is a natural process, mourning is incredibly complex no matter your age. Parents often struggle with how to discuss a death with their children, even while they are mourning the loss themselves. Many child specialists and mental health experts agree that the following suggestions for discussing the loss can help you to discuss death and the grieving process with children.
Of course, your family’s spiritual and religious background may form a solid foundation from which to begin. However, the guiding principles outlined below can work for any family regardless of religious or cultural background. Additionally, the suggestions that follow are not only good for helping children to view death appropriately but are also designed to help you cope as well.
Most child psychologists urge you to avoid telling your child that his or her loved one is “just sleeping.” Not only is this factually incorrect, but it may also make your child afraid to go to sleep ever again. Instead, tell him or her the truth about what happens when a person’s body dies. Avoid baby talk by trying to protect your child from the reality of death, as it can make the situation much worse. Children often think in concrete terms, so using abstract language such as “really long nap” or “gone away” can be confusing to young children. It is appropriate to call death what it is and use the terms dying, death or died and the fact that it is permanent.
It is very important that you understand that children grieve differently than adults. Depending on the age of the child and the relationship he or she had with the deceased, a child’s reaction may seem shocking to an adult’s sensibilities. If the child did not have a direct or emotional connection with the person who passed away, then he or she may have zero response to the news. However, if the child was close to the loved one who died, then you may see behavioral changes in eating, sleeping or how he or she gets along with others at school.
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Sometimes children may feel guilty about someone’s death, often believing that they are the cause. Conversely, a child’s capacity to remain sad for long periods of time is shorter than for adults. Just because your child goes back to playing, even laughing with friends, does not mean he or she did not feel the loss or is acting disrespectful. Older children may fluctuate in and out of sadness, so it is important for parents and caregivers to allow them to grieve in their own way, and to acknowledge that children grieve differently than adults with more life experience.
One of the most critical actions to take is to make it clear you are available to answer any questions your child might have about a loved one’s death. A child’s age and his or her understanding of what happens when someone dies can direct the level of the questioning. This is true for both your child and for you. Using questions to start a dialogue is a very good way to discover your child’s feelings about what has happened. While you do not have to give the details about how a person died, your child does need to know that the deceased has died and is not coming back.
It can be helpful to try and place yourself in your child’s shoes, imagining what everything looks like from his or her perspective. If the child witnessed the death directly and seems traumatized by the event, then it may be a good idea to reach out to a therapist trained to assist children who are grieving. It can also be traumatizing for a small child to watch paramedics work on someone or visit a beloved family member in the hospital and see various tubes and cords attached to him or her. When you ask your child questions, you allow him or her to process his or her emotions in a safe and comfortable space.
Understand that children process information differently than adults. Even if you have explained something to them once, they may very well come back a day later and ask the same question again. Children need repetition to be able to fully grasp such a complex topic. Do not become angry when asked to repeat something as it is not a sign of disrespect or that he or she was not listening to you. Your child is simply trying to understand what has happened.
If in your discussions with your child you discover he or she feels guilty about the death, then do not dismiss this feeling, as it is genuine. Children often assign blame to themselves for things that have nothing to do with them at all. It is critical to reinforce the fact that your child did not cause the death and that the memories he or she had with the departed have not gone away. Taking the time to remember the good times together and pulling out an old album to reminisce on happier days are all helpful.
Just as it takes time for your own grief to process, children also need time to deal with their grief. Make sure he or she knows that it is okay to show feelings, happy or sad, and it is okay to talk about the person who has died. Understand that dealing with death and loss, as well as the transition it ushers in, is also a learning phase in every human being’s life. In fact, transitions are going to be a part of your child’s life and learning some coping skills for times when he or she feels uncertain is a positive aspect.
Often school-aged children lack the vocabulary to discuss how they are feeling, but expressing it through their artwork, playing with dolls, creating poems or writing in journals are all appropriate outlets. Let the children see you grieving as well. Your child needs to know it is okay to express those feelings, as they are a natural reaction. Show that you are also sad this person has died, but that you are strong and still capable of taking care of him or her.
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