Children and Grief; Teaching Children What Death and Dying is All About
Death happens all the time. It can come slowly as in the case of those with terminal illnesses, or it can happen unexpectedly. Adults already have the ability and eventually accept the death of a loved one but for children, the concept of being on one’s deathbed or not waking up one day can be difficult to process. Children and grief is a territory that many adults will stumble through or even try to avoid altogether. But there is a healthier, healing way to approach this.
Parents have a hard time broaching this subject because they want to shield their children from the agony and grief that comes with death. But death is just part of life and one that should be discussed as much as possible in order to prepare them when such a crisis arises.
Whether parents like it or not, children and grief are joined – kids are exposed to death all the time. They see dead plants, dead insects, and dead animals from time to time. Even the TV programs that they see every day tackle death at one point or another although subtly. They even read about death and even perform death at school too. So you see the concept is being woven into their young life. It is just a matter of how you’re going to teach them idea of dying and death fully for them to understand.
Why Death is Difficult to Talk About – Talking With Kids About Death and Dying
The top 3 reasons why discussing death is a challenge for many parents.
Lack of answers. Children are inquisitive by nature and will always ask why. They expect their parents to provide them with the answers because they believe that adults know everything. As flattering as this is, it is better to be honest about death especially when you know your answer is not sufficient to what they’re asking. Instead of being embarrassed that you lack the right answer, be honest.
In some family cultures talking about it is taboo. For some cultures, death is interwoven into their daily lives, for others it is a topic very actively avoided. Some family members prefer to die at home with loved ones looking over them including children. Today, however, there are many who die alone, away from family, which can be a cause for concern for children. What we don’t talk about or acknowledge can be scary and very confusing for kids.
Some parents and families avoid upsetting topics. Parents have this tendency to bottle their emotions up to show their children that everything is alright. However, kids are attuned to their parents’ emotions including body language. When children feel that their parents are keen on discussing a death in the household, they hesitate to ask questions which leave them vulnerable as well.
Discussing Death with Children – Talking With Kids About Death and Dying
Children have different levels of understanding death which means you need to know what the best approach is based on the age and understanding of the child. For example, preschoolers assume that death is just temporary and that the one who died will magically rise. This is acceptable at this age. At the ages, five to nine, children are aware of death as they see insects, plants, and animals die, but they don’t connect it with them. They can associate death with the image of a skeleton and may even have trouble sleeping because of it. By the time they reach adolescence, they are more aware of what death is, and that is not irreversible and can even happen to them as well.
Based on these ages, parents will be able to find the best approach to this sensitive topic.
Here are a couple of quick tips that you can use:
For preschoolers, explaining death requires the use of simple terms that they will easily understand. Giving examples makes the concept of death more concrete such as death means losing the ability to move, think, and feel.
For children aged five to nine, repetition should be employed. There are some children who have an endless supply of questions, which can feel overwhelming while others simply listen then come back later to discuss the topic further. The best action to take here is to be ready to answer your children’s question no matter when it suddenly crops up.
Keep in Mind: It will take children time to really process the concept of dying and death. Some children will still ask as to why their Aunt is crying even when she knows that her Uncle Ted is dead. Others may feel indifferent on the concept of dying and death and may be ruthless in their questions such as, “When will you die?” And still others may act out or engage in silly antics or humor. Instead of getting annoyed or hurt with their questions or behavior, it is best that you practice patience and understanding. After all death is a big concept that they still need to understand.
Opportunities to Take Advantage Of – Talking With Kids About Death and Dying
Sometimes broaching the topic of dying or death to young children is necessary in order to prepare them. Just like it was mentioned before, kids encounter death in so many ways such as death of a pet, an animal they come across, or even a dead plant. This can open a floodgate of questions about death so you need to be ready to provide answers that they can easily digest. Tell them that death is a natural thing and that all living things eventually die.
If your child needs to be present in a funeral, you should explain to them what goes on in a funeral service so they will not be overwhelmed with what they see or hear. Tell them that there will be people who will be crying and that funerals are usually a sad occasion.
Children will mourn in their own way especially when someone close to them is dying or recently died. Children and grief do not necessarily “look” as many adults might expect. They will feel lost, angry, and confused all at the same time. It is important that you make them feel safe and secured with the knowledge that they are never alone and that they are always loved and cared for.
Death is always synonymous with life. What’s important is to convey to children that death happens all the time and to be there for them when they feel the pain and loss. Patience and understanding is important when discussing the concept of dying and death to children and the acceptance that children have a deeper understanding of life. They just need someone to guide them through this challenging phase to emerge with minimal scars.
If your family is facing the death of a loved one and you need help to guide you in your discussions and support of children through this time, I’d like to help you. I am also available to support a child in your family that is struggling with the loss or coming loss of a family member or friend.
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Ben Carrettin is Nationally Board Certified, a Licensed Professional Counselor and has worked in the arena of addiction/emotional health and the corporate world for many years. He is trained in Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) and is also a lay chaplain with advanced training in pastoral care as well as cross-cultural communication.