Talking with children about death
By Leanne Billiau
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”
I saw this quote several times in the days immediately following the recent tragedy in Connecticut. I also heard many people struggling with how and what to tell their children. Anxiety, fear, anger, and feelings of helplessness come to the forefront as we are reminded that life is full of uncertainties. Although the desire to protect children from all hurt, pain, sadness, and grief is strong, it is not possible to create a life for them that is without struggle and heartache. Those of us who work in hospice are aware of this on a daily basis as we help people who are dying to be as comfortable and peaceful as possible, and then help those who are left as they grieve the loss of their loved ones.
In a previous blog post “Death through the eyes of a child”, my colleague Patty Ayers addressed the difficulties parents may have regarding talking to their children about death. When you do talk with children about death, whether the death was expected, or it was a sudden, traumatic death, there are some basic principles to keep in mind.
Be Honest: It is important for children to know they can trust the adults in their lives, so tell them the truth. Answer their questions honestly at their level of understanding. If children’s questions are not answered, they will be left to imagine what may have happened and what they make up is almost always worse than the reality.
Use Appropriate Terms: Children are learning about the concept of death, so it is important to use the word “death”. When young children are told that someone “went to sleep”, they may be afraid to go to sleep. It is important to make sure they know that not every illness ends in death or they may be afraid the next time they, or you, get a cold. Let them know the person was very, very ill, if that was the case, and that is not the same as when they get a cold and feel sick.
Be Reassuring: Let children know that you are there to care for and protect them to the best of your ability. Make time to be physically close to them. Give them extra hugs and attention, but try to keep their routine intact so they can feel a sense of normalcy at a time that may be scary.
Listen: Offer opportunities for them to talk and listen to their thoughts, concerns, fears, and viewpoints with an open heart. Let them fully express what is in their mind and heart before responding; try not to interrupt. If they do not want to talk, do not push them to do so, but let them know you are there to listen and continue to provide opportunities for them to express themselves. As adults, we all grieve in our own way and this is true for children as well. Some children will talk more than others; some will express their feelings more through art or play.
Be Aware: Take note of any changes in your child’s behavior and monitor those changes. They may have difficulty focusing on school work, trouble sleeping, appetite changes, or unexplained physical ailments. This is normal for everyone (children and adults alike) after the death of a loved one and should begin to dissipate after a few months. If the changes are extreme or do not begin to diminish, you may want to seek professional help. There are children’s grief centers throughout the country and they can be a valuable resource. Children often do well in groups with other children of their own age who have had similar experiences.
Take Care of Yourself: Whether you realize it or not, your child is learning how to cope with grief and loss from you. Do not buy into the idea of “being strong for the children”. They need to see that you are human, that it is okay to express emotion, and that death is not only inevitable, it is also survivable. Make sure you have other adults to talk to about your feelings and concerns. Children need to know that not only are they not responsible for the death, they also are not responsible for taking care of you. If/when you cry in front of them, try narrating your feelings for them. For instance, “I am crying because I am sad that your grandma died. I love and miss her. We all have times when we are happy and times when we are sad. Sometimes I might cry or get mad, but it all will be okay. As sad as I may feel right now, I will get through it, and I know I will have many happy times again, too.” This allows your child to see that it is safe to express emotions, to talk about those emotions, and to accept their happiness as well without guilt.
Other resources that may be helpful include Preparing the Children from our Useful Tools section. Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT of Griefministerdotcom wrote more about child developmental stages and grief in his blog post “What Does My Child Understand About Death and Grief”. The Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families also includes information about developmental grief responses on their web site.
Parents, caregivers, and teachers may also find the article “Helping your Children Manage Distress in the Aftermath of a shooting” , written by the American Psychological Association, or the publication “Tips for Talking with and Helping Children and Youth Cope after a Disaster or Traumatic Event” useful following tragedy or disaster.