Helping Children Cope with Death

When death intrudes on the life of a child, as it sometimes does, helping the child to cope with the experience can be both difficult and painful: painful because it may involve us as parents in the death of someone loved and close; difficult because what do you tell a child, what is enough but not too much?

At different ages, children have very different understandings of what death is. Somewhere between six and nine, they realize that death is final. They sometimes personify death as a skeleton or a ghost, and feel afraid. Checking for the monster who lives under the bed before one goes to sleep may be a manifestation of this fear. Children of this age are also subject to magical thinking. They may think that words and wishes can cause people to die and may even need to be reassured that there is no connection between their thoughts or behavior and the death of a loved one.

Adolescents search for the meaning of life and question the existence of God as the knowledge of death's finality sinks in. They need an opportunity to be heard, to voice their doubts and questions and to have others share with them.

Children Need Help

Children sometimes need help in dealing with their feelings about death and signal this need with their behavior. Some of the danger signs of unhealthy grieving are: poor school performance, nightmares, bed wetting, withdrawal from friends and normal activities, adoption of the mannerisms or speech patterns of the person who died, developing symptoms of the illness of the person who died, sudden difficulty in separating from parents. The child is giving the message, "I am hurting; I need help."

The following guidelines cross age groups and if followed with a sensitive awareness of the child may prove helpful when a family tragedy occurs.

Provide Simple, Clear Information

Children need simple, accurate information about death, whether it is in their own family or in the family of a friend. Since death is an ever-present fact of life, it helps to teach your children about what death means through everyday occurrences. For instance, the dog down the street that died of old age or a dead bird in the park are vehicles that can help children become familiar with death. The child then has a background from which deeper understanding comes.

Children are not helped by being shielded from the truth. On the contrary, it makes them more apprehensive than would otherwise be the case. When a child believes that something is 'too dreadful for words,' it becomes all powerful. Providing a simple, brief explanation begins a process of healthy understanding. However, the task cannot be finished in one session. Children need time to absorb such information.

Permit Children's Participation

Children should be given an opportunity to participate in the family rituals and customs that surround death as well as to offer and receive support. They should be offered an opportunity to visit a dying person, attend a wake or funeral, make a condolence call. A simple, calm explanation of what they are likely to encounter in such situations can give them the necessary guidance about what to expect.

Encourage Children To Grieve In Their Own Way

Children grieve in ways different from adults. They may not always do what adults think of as socially acceptable. They may want to go out to play when grownups come to express condolences or to discuss the dead person in what seems to adults to be a callous manner. This is part of their struggle to understand how death affects them.

Don't Expect Children To Shift Roles After a Death in the Family

Without realizing it, parents may look to a child to replace the person who died. A mother brought her nine-year-old son to therapy because he was failing in school for no apparent reason. In the course of therapy, it emerged that the father had died two years previously and the mother had said to this youngster, "Now you're the man of the family." This was too big a burden for the boy. Failing in school was his way of giving his mother that message.

In circumstances of death, as in all stressful situations that occur in the lives of children, a sympathetic listener who can tolerate the expression of negative feelings will help children learn that there is no shame to what they feel, that their emotions will not destroy them or anyone else, that what they are experiencing is normal, that they are understood and accepted. Then they can heal.