Unfortunately for everyone on this earth, death is a part of life and a factor that eventually, every family must deal with. The question is, how to tell children, both younger and older, about death? Especially after a loved one or even a pet has died. Where do you begin?
The subject of death seems to be taboo for many of us, but children really have a right to know what is going on. Children of ages deal with death in many different ways: including sadness, denial, confusion, anger, acting out, irritability, nightmares, loss of appetite, physical symptoms such as stomach aches, fear of being alone, withdrawal, just to list a few. It is our job as parents to assist the child in dealing with death and their reactions.
Children are aware of death, they hear about it in fairy tales, they see dead bugs. However, they may not know all that is involved. In talking to children about death, you must deal with their emotional level and with their capacity to understand the related facts of the situation. This of course, will depend on the age of the child. Preschoolers, for instance might have a problem understanding that death is not temporary and will need help in this area, where as an older child deals with death much more like an adult. However, most children will have some misconceptions, fears or worries about death; misinformation that they have picked up elsewhere be it in the media or from friends. Most of us are inclined to not talk about stuff that is unpleasant, but though talk will not solve all the problems, without talking about it, we are even more limited in our ability to offer assistance and children are feeling many emotions that they do not know how to deal with. Children are great at picking up unspoken messages such as body language, facial expressions, so they pick up information that way, would it not be better to open and honest about what is going on?
Do not push a child to talk about their feelings, but if they do ask questions, answer them honestly. You can snuggle with your child and use touch to console them. You will want to reassure them that their basic needs will continue to be met; reassure them that the death was not their fault; be concise in your language (people do not go to sleep or slip away, they die); finally, you will want to allow your children to express themselves freely with crying, talking, being angry, looking through photo albums, etc.
Also, there are books that you can get from the library also that will help your child cope with the death of a loved one. Children that are struggling with grief often give parents signals through long periods of depression, inability to talk about the deceased, behaviour problems, etc. If you need help, you could talk to your physician, minister, professional counsellors or teacher. (In fact, it is best to let the teacher know what is going on anyways with regards to a death in the family). If your child is older, in some areas, there are support groups for children whose parent has died.
Is it ok to take a child to see someone that is dying? It is, only if you really prepare the child before hand. Tell them what to expect, Rather than a visit, a telephone call might be a handy substitution. Is it ok to take kids to the funeral? A funeral is valuable because it gives the living the opportunity to celebrate the life of the person that has died. If you want to take them, it is entirely up to you and how you think your child will handle it. What do you tell a child about a funeral? You may want to explain that the body of the person who died is going to be in a big wood box called a casket. The person will not be able to hear, see or talk. There will be people who will talk about the person that has died. Most of the people who are at the funeral will be really sad and some may be crying.
If you believe in a higher power, this may be a good time to talk to your child about this and the view your belief holds on death. If you believe in heaven, you can mention to your child that you will see the person who has died again. It all comes down to what you believe.
We cannot always shield our children from death, dying and other sad things in life, but we can most definitely help them cope with them. Most children look to adults for all the answers in life, but sometimes, in cases such as this, parents do not know it all either and it is ok not to have all the answers, but just do the best you can in dealing with the subject of death with your child. That is all that anyone can ask of you.