SUDBURY ONTARIO CANADA
Death is an inescapable fact of life, and we most certainly must deal with it at some point and so must our children; if we are to assist them, we must encourage them to talk about it and let them knot that it is okay to talk about it.
By talking to our children about death, we may discover what they know and do not know – if they have misconceptions, fears or worries. We can also assist them by providing them with accurate needed information, comfort and understanding.
Long before we realize it, children are aware of death. They see dead birds, insects, and animals lying by the road. They have probably seen death a number of times on television or in movies. They hear about it in books and act it out in their play.
Communication Problems That Might Cause Barriers
Many of us are inclined not to talk about things that upset us. We try to put a lid on our feelings and hope that saying nothing will be for the best. But not talking about something doesn’t mean we aren’t communicating. Children are great observers. They read messages on our faces and in the way we walk or hold our hands. We express ourselves by what we do, by what we say, and by what we do not say.
When we avoid talking about something that is obviously upsetting, children often hesitate to bring up the subject or ask questions about it. To a child, avoidance can be a message - “If Mummy and Daddy can’t talk about it, it really must be bad, so I better not talk about it either.” In effect, instead of protecting our children by avoiding talk, we sometimes cause them more worry and also keep them from telling us how they feel.
On the other hand, it also isn’t wise to confront children with information that they may not yet understand or want to know. As with any sensitive subject, we must seek a delicate balance that encourages children to communicate - a balance that lies somewhere between avoidance and confrontation, a balance that isn’t easy to achieve. It involves:
Perhaps most difficult of all, it involves examining our own feelings and beliefs so that we can talk to them as naturally as possible when the opportunities arise.
Not Having All the Answers
When talking with children, many of us feel uncomfortable if we don’t have all the answers. Young children, in particular, seem to expect parents to be "all knowing" - even about death. But death, the one certainty in all life, is life’s greatest uncertainty. Coming to terms with death can be a lifelong process. We may find different answers at different stages of our lives, or we may always feel a sense of uncertainty and fear. If we have unresolved fears and questions, we may wonder how to provide comforting answers for our children.
While not all our answers may be comforting, we can share what we truly believe. Where we have doubts, an honest, “I just don’t know the answer to that one,” may be more comforting than an explanation which we don’t quite believe. Children usually sense our doubts. White lies, no matter how well intended, can create uneasiness and distrust. Besides, sooner, or later, our children will learn that we are not all knowing, and maybe we can make that discovery easier for them if we calmly and matter-of-factly tell them we don’t have all the answers. Our non-defensive and accepting attitude may help them feel better about not knowing everything also.
It may help to tell our children that different people believe different things and that not everyone believes as we do, e.g., some people believe in an afterlife; some do not. By indicating our acceptance and respect for others’ beliefs, we may make it easier for our children to choose beliefs different from our own but more comforting to them.
The Challenge of Talking to a Young Child
Communicating with preschoolers or young school-age children about any subject can be challenging. They need brief and simple explanations. Long lectures or complicated responses to their questions will probably bore or confuse them and should be avoided. Using concrete and familiar examples may help. For instance, Dr. Earl A. Grollman suggests in his book, Explaining Death to Children, that death may be made more comprehensible by explaining it in terms of the absence of familiar life functions - when people die they do not breathe, eat, talk, think, or feel any more; when dogs die they do not bark or run any more; dead flowers do not grow or bloom any more.
A child may ask questions immediately or may respond with thoughtful silence and come back at a later time to ask more questions. Each question deserves a simple and relevant answer. Checking to see if a child has understood what has been said is critical; youngsters sometimes confuse what they hear. Also, children learn through repetition, and they may need to hear the same question answered over and over again. As time passes and children have new experiences, they will need further clarification and sharing of ideas and feelings.
There are also times when we have difficulty “hearing” what children are asking us. A question that may seem shockingly insensitive to an adult may be a child’s request for reassurance. For instance, a question such as, “When will you die?” needs to be heard with the realization that the young child perceives death as temporary. While the finality of death is not fully understood, a child may realize that death means separation, and separation from parents and the loss of care involved are frightening. Being cared for is a realistic and practical concern, and a child needs to be reassured. Possibly the best way to answer such a question is by asking a clarifying question in return: “Are you worried that I won’t be here to take care of you?” If that is the case, the reassuring and appropriate answer would be something like, “I don’t expect to die for a long time. I expect to be here to take care of you as long as you need me, but if Mummy and Daddy did die, there are lots of people to take care of you. There’s Aunt Ellen and Uncle John or Grandma.”
DO NOT USE EUPHIMISMS SUCH AS “SLEEP”, ETERNAL REST OR “WENT AWAY”
Other problems can arise from children’s misconceptions about death. Dr. R. Fulton, in Grollman’s Explaining Death to Children, points out that some children confuse death with sleep, particularly if they hear adults refer to death with one of the many euphemisms for sleep - “eternal rest”, “rest in peace.”
As a result of the confusion, a child may become afraid of going to bed or of taking naps. Grandma went “to sleep” and hasn’t gotten up yet. Maybe I won’t wake up either.
Similarly, if children are told that someone who died “went away”, brief separations may begin to worry them. Grandpa “went away” and hasn’t come back yet. Maybe Mummy won’t come back from the shops or from work. Therefore, it is important to avoid such words as “sleep”, “rest”, or “went away” when talking to a child about death.
Telling children that sickness was the cause of a death can also create problems, if the truth is not tempered with reassurance. Preschoolers cannot differentiate between temporary and fatal illness, and minor ailments may begin to cause them unnecessary concern. When talking to a child about someone who has died as a result of an illness, it might be helpful to explain that only a very serious illness may cause death, and that although we all get sick sometimes, we usually get better again.
Another generalization we often make unthinkingly is relating death to old age. Statements such as, “Only old people die” or, “Aunt Hannah died because she was old” can lead to distrust when a child eventually learns that young people die, too. It might be better to say something like, “Aunt Hannah lived a long time before she died. Most people live a long time, but some don’t. I expect you and I will.”
The Unemotional Opportunity
It is usually easier to talk about death when we are less emotionally involved. Taking opportunities to talk to children about dead flowers, trees, insects, or birds may be helpful. Some young children show intense curiosity about dead insects and animals. They may wish to examine them closely or they may ask detailed questions about what happens physically to dead things. Although this interest may seem repulsive or morbid to us, it is a way of learning about death. Children should not be made to feel guilty or embarrassed about their curiosity. Their interest may provide an opportunity to explain for the first time that all living things die and in this way make room for new living things to take their place on earth.
This kind of answer may satisfy for the moment, or it may lead to questions about our own mortality. Honest, unemotional, and simple answers are called for. If we are talking to a very young child, we must remember that she can absorb only limited amounts of information at a time. She may listen seriously to our answers and then skip happily away saying, “Well, I’m never going to die.” We shouldn’t feel compelled to contradict her or think that our efforts have been wasted. We have made it easier for her to come back again when she needs more answers.
Other opportunities to discuss death with children occur when prominent persons die and their deaths, funerals, and the public’s reaction receive a great deal of media coverage. When a death is newsworthy, children are bound to see something about it on television or hear it mentioned on the radio, in school, or in our conversations. In any case, it can rarely be ignored and, in fact, should not be. It is a natural time to give them needed information or to clarify any misconceptions they may have about death.
If the death is violent - a murder or assassination - it is probably a good idea to say something to reassure children about their safety. The media tends to play up violence under ordinary circumstances, and the violent death of a well-known or admired person may stimulate their fears or confirm distorted perceptions they may have about the dangers around them. They may become worried that “bad” people or that the “bad feelings” in people cannot be controlled. They may need to hear that most people act responsibly and do not go around killing each other, even though everyone feels bad or angry at some time.
Children Also Mourn
Mourning is the recognition of a deeply felt loss and a process we all must go through before we are able to pick up the pieces and go on living fully and normally again. Mourning heals. By being open with our sorrow and tears, we show our children that it is all right to feel sad and to cry. The expression of grief should never be equated with weakness. Our sons as well as our daughters should be allowed to shed their tears and express their feelings if and when they need to.
A child may show little immediate grief, and we may think she is unaffected by the loss. Some mental health experts believe that children are not mature enough to work through a deeply felt loss until they are adolescents. Because of this, they say, children are apt to express their sadness on and off over a long period of time and often at unexpected moments. Other family members may find it painful to have old wounds probed again and again, but children need patience, understanding, and support to complete their “grief work”.
Needs of A Grieving Child
Characteristics of Age Groups (to be used only as a general guide)
Studies show that children go through a series of stages in their understanding of death. For example, preschool children usually see death as reversible, temporary, and impersonal. Watching cartoon characters on television miraculously rise up
2-6 Years Old:
6-9 Years Old:
9-12 Year Old:
While it can be helpful to know that children go through a series of stages in the way they perceive death, it is important to remember that, as in all growth processes, children develop at individual rates. It is equally important to keep in mind that all children experience life uniquely and have their own personal ways of expressing and handling feelings. Some children ask questions about death as early as three years of age. Others may outwardly appear to be unconcerned about the death of a grandparent, but may react strongly to the death of a pet. Some may never mention death, but act out their fantasies in their play; they may pretend that a toy or pet is dying and express their feelings and thoughts in their make-believe game, or they may play “death games” with their friends, taking turns dying or developing elaborate funeral rituals.
No matter how children cope with death or express their feelings, they need sympathetic and nonjudgmental responses from adults. Careful listening and watching are important ways to learn how to respond appropriately to a child’s needs.
Bereaved Children and Teens: A Support Guide for Parents and Professionals by Earl A. Grollman
Interventions with Bereaved Children by Susan C. Smith and Sister Margaret Pennells
Children Mourning: Mourning Children By Kenneth J. Doka
On Children and Death by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D.
Parenting Through Crisis: Helping Kids in Time of Loss, Grief and Change By Barbara Coloroso
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