Death is a natural, inescapable experience in life. We must deal with it and so must our children. If we are to help them, we must let them know it’s okay to talk about it and to guide them gently and honestly through this occurrence. What we say will depend on the child’s age and experiences as well as our own. Discussions may be prompted by the death of a loved one or by a news story on television.
Psychologists have studied children’s responses to the death of a loved and have discovered that children usually are not as vulnerable as many adults assume them to be. They are aware of death at a very early age – they may see a dead animal along the road or hear about it in fairy tales or watch a cartoon character die. By talking to our children about death, we discover what they know and do not know – if they have misconceptions, fears, or worries. We can then help them by providing needed information, comfort, and understanding. Talk does not solve all problems, but without talk we are even more limited in our ability to help. Sheltering a child from age-appropriate information, while well-intentioned, could lead to mistrust, traumas, and irrational fears based on unresolved grief as the child matures.
Experts suggest following these guidelines:
- The child should be the main factor in deciding when to talk about a loved one’s death.
- The child should be consulted and encouraged to participate, but not forced.
- Information should be given only as the child needs or requests it.
- Keep explanations simple.
- If appropriate, allow the child to attend the funeral so that he/she doesn’t feel left out.
- If the child does not attend the interment, he/she should be taken to the cemetery at a later date.
The child’s loss can be eased by discussing happy experiences he/she shared with the deceased. Remind the child about the attention he/she gave to the loved one and how that added to the happiness in the deceased’s life. Explain to the child that his/her relationship to the deceased has changed but has not ended. After the funeral, display pictures and other reminders about the deceased and talk about him/her with the child.
Encouraging children to talk with us about death, we can give them information, prepare them for a crisis, and help them when they are upset. Even though we may be grieving, we owe it to our children to offer honest explanations while listening to and accepting their feelings in a sympathetic and non-judgmental way.