Talking to children about death is a challenge. No one knows what to say and everyone wants to make the hurt go away. Most people like to think that children do not understand death, grief or loss. Because of that, people often rely on vague phrases such as “grandma passed away” or “he’s gone to Heaven” or “we lost Grandpa today” in an attempt to ease the pain.
However, children experience many of the same things you do when dealing with death, so it is best to share your thoughts and tears with them. Hiding your feelings from them only teaches them it is not okay to feel sad or grieve when someone dies.
In addition, most children have developed ideas about death earlier than many of us think, due to television, cartoons, books, and adult conversations. They also already may have experienced the death of a pet, friend or family member. For these reasons, it is important for you to communicate openly with your child when dealing with a death.
What do they know?
Ideas about death grow with age, development and experience. Even very young infants are affected by the emotional atmosphere in a grieving family. They respond to sounds and activity levels of the household. Sleep and feeding patterns may be disrupted and infants may become irritable and demand more attention. At times of stress, babies experience separation loss and become sensitive to touch, light, handling and facial expressions.
Children three to five years old may ask questions like, “how do they go to the bathroom-” or “do they get cold or wet-” or “how do they eat-” Their thought processes tend to be very ego-centered. Children this age are most concerned about who will care for them.
Elementary children begin to understand that death is permanent. They usually equate death with old age and fear others close to them will die. Death is often given a “personality” and the power to select who dies. It is not unusual for them to believe that death can be caused or avoided by their behavior. They see death as a powerful force and are intrigued about how the body works. They ask a lot of questions to try to make sense about the world. They see death as unfair and worry about its impact on them.
Children 10 to 12 years old understand death is permanent, universal and personal. They see death as an unavoidable conclusion of life. They are very curious and have questions about details surrounding death and the funeral itself. They are fascinated by gory things and their questions may seem inappropriate. They may want to touch and feel the body as they try to understand death. They show concern and fear for others and worry about the future but know they will survive if someone they love dies.
Teenagers who have reached adult levels of understanding tend to see themselves as invincible. They have very intense emotions and search for spiritual and philosophical meaning. They may do things that tempt death as a way of exerting their independence and controlling themselves and their environment. In their search to absorb the reality of death, they hold onto rituals and remembering. They learn that pain knows no age and grief hurts. They are future oriented and find great strength in their peers.
How do children express grief?
Children tend to act out their feelings and fears rather than talk about them. Take cues from their behavior: temper outbursts, regression and panic, tummy aches, headaches and other physical complaints may be signs of grief. Children need to be comforted and reassured. Withdrawal, silence, depression and increased dependency may appear. Over-activity is an indication that a child is trying to delay the pain.
As children sort out what has happened in their world, it is normal for them to be angry with the person who died or persons who were involved in some way with the death. They may be angry with God or themselves. They may believe they had something to do with the death and experience burdens of guilt. The loss of trust and belief in “happily ever after” are some of the hardest losses children have to face.
How can you help?
Children need clear, concise, age-appropriate information about death. They need to express their emotions. Help your child be a part of the mourning process and allow him or her to choose their level of participation in the funeral, mourning rituals, and planned activities. Very young children may simply wish to be near their family members while older children may participate by reading a poem at a funeral service, writing letters, or placing something special in the casket.
Be available. Your child will need reassurance and be concerned about his or her future. Answer questions openly and honestly. If you don’t know the answer, explore the question with your child. Encourage expressions of grief and provide appropriate places and ways of expressing those emotions. Know that grief hurts. Do not attempt to rescue the child from his or her pain. Instead, work together to get through the pain.
Young children may express fear at being alone and wish to sleep with you or keep a light on at night. Assure them they are safe and these kinds of feelings are normal when someone dies. Suggest that they camp out on the floor next to your bed then gradually move them back to their bedroom.
Grief may cause children problems concentrating. School work may be affected. Temper your emotions with kindness and understanding, but continue to require appropriate behavior. Grief should not be an excuse.
Children need normalcy, so try to maintain a routine. Continuity becomes a safety net and routine provides them with a sense of security and stability.
Grief lasts far longer than anyone expects. As family roles change, grieving children will question and try to establish a new identity. This self-search often overshadows all other concerns for many weeks and months. Children will continue to deal with the loss as they grow and mature. The loss will be addressed again and again as they gain new understandings, insights and experiences.
Let your children guide you. Allow your children to become your teacher. Follow your children as they explore the various dimensions of hurt, loss and grief. Learn to listen and hear, not only the pain, but the confusion, isolation, loneliness, and despair. It is not possible or even desirable to eliminate all stressful events from the lives of children. Children learn to cope with loss by moving through the anxiety they feel with the help of supportive adults.
As positive experiences in dealing with loss accumulate, children develop the ability to see themselves as competent, strong, worthwhile individuals and see life as a challenge they can meet.