A short time ago a beloved family member passed away and as I watched family members grieve I was taken aback by the diversity of responses; from quiet contemplation to protective humor and from avoidance to aggressive confrontation. While all the adults tarried about, trying their best to make sense of all that was happening, the one thing we all seemed to agree on was the need to protect the children from undue burden over the harsh reality of death. In hindsight this was likely unnecessary, as most of the children present were more traumatized by the increased anxiety their parents were going through than by the death itself; that is, for the ones that weren’t completely oblivious to the reason for the family getting together at all.
As I thought about the affects this experience has had on me and my family, I also thought about the importance of talking to our children about death and dying. Also on the appropriateness of how to breach the subject with our children. So here are a few ideas of how you could address this topic when your family has to confront it.
Breaking the News
Start by picking a location where you and your child can be alone for as long as needed without interruptions. Attempt to learn all the facts about the death, so you can explain them to your child and help him understand, if he asks. Once you tell your child that the death has occurred, answer any questions he may have. You may also find your child would prefer to just sit quietly and think. He may need some time to fully comprehend what you’re saying. On the other hand don’t be concerned if he doesn’t seem to be deeply affected by the loss and don’t attempt to illicit false emotional responses. Remember, we all grieve in our own time and in our own way and your child may not be emotionally ready or feel the need to emote.
It is important to maintain open and honest communication with your child when it comes to discussing the death of friends or loved one. Do not avoid talking about the death; doing so may make your child afraid to bring up the subject for fear of upsetting you. It is important to remember that children are more invested in the emotional stresses and changes of their parents than we often give them credit for, or even realize. The key is to remember to keep the lines of communication open so that your child will feel free to come to you with any questions, fears, or feelings that he needs to talk about.
Children should receive clear, age-appropriate explanations of the death. For children under the age of five or six, it is important to recognize that they think literally and don’t yet grasp the meaning of death. Talking to this age group about the death might involve explaining that the person died because her body stopped working. You might also explain the reasons, such as an accident or illness leading to the body’s breakdown. As children get older, they become more capable of comprehending the reality of death, but can also respond well to clear explanations of the death process. Though it sometimes feels like we are softening the blow by using euphemisms for death, such as “resting”, “gone to sleep”, “gone away”, etc. This can be confusing to children and some belive could lead to a child becoming afraid to go to sleep or cause him to worry that the deceased is actually just on a long trip.
If available, you may want to share your own beliefs and views on death when discussing the death of a loved one. It can also be beneficial to tell children that other people have different opinions about death. This evidence of respect for other views may help children if they find an alternative belief system to be more comforting.
Dealing with Questions
It’s important to provide relevant, direct answers to all of your child’s questions about the death. Since children learn through repetition, your child may ask the questions repeatedly. If your child asks a question and you don’t know the answer, explaining your uncertainty is preferable to making up an answer. Be aware of any worries or fears underlying children’s questions and provide necessary reassurance.