Death is a fact of life, which sooner or later, we all face. Death is also a fact that we will have to face with our children. Unfortunately the needs of children are not always met when someone dies. The adults in their lives are grieving too.
Children often find it difficult to cope with death, perhaps failing to understand the full implications of losing someone. However, children do understand more than we give them credit for. With this in mind there are several points to remember when explaining to and helping a child deal with death.
A parent, or someone the child knows and trusts, should tell him or her of the death soon after it has occurred. The level of the child’s understanding will need to be identified according to their age. For example younger children, those under five, view the world literally so basic, simple concepts should be used to explain death. Euphemisms and metaphors may, and probably will, confuse the child. Be aware that the child may not understand that death is permanent. Be ready, and patient, to answer questions again and again.
When a child does ask questions always answer truthfully. Admit to not knowing the answer to a question if necessary. Honesty is the best policy, the truth is always better than uncertainty. Try to keep to regular routines: children can mourn the environment and predictability of a routine that was in place before the death. During the grieving process inform your child’s school. Ask for the support of individual teachers as necessary.
Children grieve intermittently, flitting between feelings of sadness and normality. Although they may seem more resilient, grief is an on-going process. The child may feel shock, guilt, anger, anxiety. All these emotions are normal and the child must be reassured of this. It is important to remember the child as a bereaved person to, they must not be pushed aside. They need much love, support and information to help them to manage the death of someone in their life. Let the child understand that it is okay to be sad and can cry if they want to. Providing love and support will help the child grieve naturally. Memories, therefore, are important. The child should be allowed to create and cherish their own memories. Try to encourage different ways of expressing loss be it verbally, written or creative.
In saying “goodbye” the finality of death is emphasised. To this end allow the child to take part in family rituals if they want to. Obviously the child will need to be prepared in advance to know what to expect. Part of this preparation may be to involve the child in the planning of the funeral. This may be by choosing flowers or selecting hymns or songs for the service. Perhaps draw a picture for or write a letter to the person who has died, to be placed in the coffin. The ritual of the funeral or memorial service will help make the death seem more real. This in turn will encourage the healing that comes from mourning.