Helping Children Cope with Death
Helping Children Understand Death and What It Means
Even though it will be difficult, it is important to talk with children about death. Not talking with them will make them feel unprotected and confused by the pain that accompanies this inevitable experience. When talking to a child, it is important to explain things in a very simple, loving, and uncomplicated way that suits his or her age. Understanding your own feelings about death will help you form an explanation too.
The following are some useful things to do for grieving children:
- Use simple words when telling them about death. “When someone dies, it means their body can no longer work. Their heart stops working and they can’t breathe anymore.” “No part of the body works: they can’t hear, see, smell, talk or move.”
- Use the terms death and dying. Avoid words like “left us.” “gone away.” “passed on.” Or “fallen asleep.” These terms can be confusing to children. They may begin to fear going to sleep. They may think the person has gone on a trip and will return. Do not give any hope for return.
- Tell how the death happened. Use the medical terms, cancer and heart attack, so they understand the difference between everyday sickness and diseases that cause death.
- Say where the body of their loved one has been taken and what will be done with the body. It will help them to know what visitations, funeral customs, burials, and wakes are.
- Allow the child to go to the funeral and say goodbye.
- Children have three basic questions:
- Did I cause this illness or death to happen?
- Will this eventually happen to me?
- Who will take care of me now?
- Reassure them that the death is not their fault and that all their feelings are normal.
- Give them information about who will take care of them.
- Try to maintain their routine as much as possible. Routine helps them to feel secure in their homes.
- Encourage your child to express their thoughts through words, drawings, and play. Allow for free expression of feelings through tears, anger, talking, looking at photographs, mementos, etc. Help them understand that things will get better. They may grieve one minute and play the next.
- Children who are struggling with grief often give signals to adults through prolonged depression, inability to talk about the deceased, acting out behaviors, etc. Let the child know that adults have these feelings too and people grieving the same loss often react very differently.
- Help kids understand that they are not all-powerful. If they say, “I wish you were dead,” it is not going to come true.
- Don’t hide your tears. Let them know this is a sad time and it is perfectly normal to cry.
- Death is especially hard for children if it comes by an act of violence. Psychologist, social workers, and clergy are familiar with such reactions and it may be helpful to ask them for professional counseling and support.
Children Attending the Funeral
There are many ways for a child to say good-bye. You know your child best. Your immediate reaction my be to protect your child from the pain of their loved one, yet having your child attend the services may help them feel loved, secure and part of the family. Attending the funeral service can give them an opportunity to say good-bye in their own way. They can give a special gift, a toy, or drawing to be placed in the casket. They could even participate in the service by reading a poem or placing a flower on the casket or grave. If you decide to bring them, ask a close family member or friend to be with your child during the services so they can answer any questions and guide them through the events.
Normal Reactions and Causes for Worry
Children often have trouble accepting that a death has occurred or that a loved one has abandoned them. They don’t quite know what to do about the pain they feel. They miss the person who is gone. They may worry about who will take care of them if the loved one is a parent. They do all of this with the immature emotions of a child. Children who are grieving need plenty of help from all the adults in their lives.
For a certain period of time, it’s normal for a grieving child to:
- Feel depressed or anxious.
- Act out or become angry.
- Act younger than they are by wetting the bed or sucking their thumb (if they didn’t before)..
- Blame themselves for a death or the fact that the person can’t take care of them..
- Play make-believe games about death and dying..
Your most important role is to understand and accept these reactions as normal and to share this acceptance with your child. Remember too that your child is not only “working through” grief but is also continuing the “growing up” process.
There is no timetable for grieving. Behaviors should improve as the child moves through the grieving process. If troublesome behaviors persist and do not get better over time consider seeking professional support and advice. Getting this help is particularly important if the child:
- Talks about “joining” the person who has died.
- Has a dramatic decline in school performance.
- Becomes involved with drugs or alcohol.
- Won’t or can’t connect with others
- Has nightmares or trouble sleeping for an extended period.
Your doctor can recommend some, such as a school psychologist or grief counselor, for assistance. Many local hospice agencies have bereavement programs designed especially for children.