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 todead 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.
Death in the Family – Some Children’s Reaction
Studies have shown that when children experience the death of a close relative, such as a brother, sister, or parent, they often feel guilty. While most of us experience some guilt when we lose a loved one, young children in particular have difficulty understanding cause-and-effect relationships. They think that in some way they caused the death; maybe their angry thoughts caused the person to die. Or they may view the death as a punishment. “Mummy died and left me because I was bad.” Children may be helped to cope with guilt by reassurance that they have always been loved and still are. It also may help to explain the circumstances of the death. The notion that death is a form of punishment should never be reinforced.
The death of a close relative also arouses feelings of anger in both adults and children. We feel angry with the person who died for causing us so much pain and sorrow or for leaving us alone to cope with life. We feel angry at the doctors and nurses who could not save our loved one, and we feel angry at ourselves for being unable to prevent the death.
Children are more apt to express their angry feelings openly, especially when they’ve lost someone on whom they depended for love and care. It is difficult enough to hear anger directed toward the dead and even more so when it is expressed in what appears to be selfish concerns. But anger is part of grief, and we can help children by accepting their feelings and by not scolding them if they express anger or fear. Children need to be reassured that they will be cared for.
Some children turn their angers inward and become depressed, withdrawn, or develop physical symptoms. If this behavior persists over several months, professional help may be needed.
After a Child’s Death
The death of a child is particularly tragic and may create special pitfalls for families. As parents, we must share our grief with our surviving children, for they too will have grief to share, but we must try not to burden them with unrealistic expectations and concerns. For example, there is a tendency to idealize the dead, and we must take care not to make comparisons that could lead to feelings of unworthiness and increase the guilt of surviving children.
It is also natural to deal with grief by turning our attention to the living. It is understandable that the loss of a child may lead to too much worry about the welfare of our other children. However, we must resist any tendencies to overprotect them or smother their efforts to grow independent, and we must encourage them not to over-identify with or try to replace the lost child. Each child must feel worthy in her own right and must be free to live out her own life in her own way.
Should Children Visit The Dying?
Most fatally ill people are hospitalized, and, as a rule, hospitals do not extend visiting privileges to children. But this is beginning to change as hospital staffs recognize the value that can be derived from having children visit. Whether or not a particular child should visit someone who is dying depends on the child, the patient, and the situation. A child who is old enough to understand what is happening probably should be permitted to visit someone who has played an important role in her life, providing that both she and the dying person wish it.
Under the right circumstances, contact with the dying can be useful to a youngster. It may diminish the mystery of death and help her develop more realistic ways of coping. It can open avenues of communication, reducing the loneliness often felt by both the living and the dying. The opportunity to bring a moment of happiness to a dying individual might help a child feel useful and less helpless.
If a child is to visit someone who is dying, she needs to be thoroughly prepared for what she will hear and see. The condition and appearance of the patient should be described, and any sickroom equipment she will see should be explained in advance. Also, it may be wise to remind her that although she is visiting someone who is dying, most hospital patients get well.
If visits are not feasible, telephone calls may be a handy substitute. The sound of a child’s voice could be a good medicine for a hospitalized relative, providing the child wishes to call and the patient is well enough to receive it.
Under no circumstances should a child be coerced or made to feel guilty if she chooses not to call or visit the dying or if her contacts are brief.
Should Children Attend Funerals?
Funerals serve a valuable function. Every society has some form of ceremony to help the living acknowledge, accept and cope with the loss of a loved one. Whether or not a particular child should be included again depends on the child and the situation. If the child is old enough to understand and wants to participate, being included may help her accept the reality of the death while in the supportive company of family and friends.
If a child is to attend a funeral, she should be prepared for what she will hear and see before, during, and after the services. She should be aware that on such a sad occasion people will be expressing their bereavement in various ways and that some will be crying. If possible, someone who is calm and can give serious consideration and answers to questions she may ask should accompany the child. If she prefers not to attend the funeral, she must not be coerced or made to feel guilty.
Sending Children Away From Home
The loss or impending loss of a close family member taxes our emotional and physical reserves to the extreme, and it becomes difficult to meet everyday responsibilities. If is even more difficult to care for youngsters, and sometimes we are tempted to send our children to visit relatives or friends until we can “pull ourselves together”. Keeping children at a distance may also be a way to avoid talking to them about the death.
Careful consideration should be given before children are sent away, for this is when they most need the comfort of familiar surroundings and close contact with family members. They need time to adjust to the loss and, if feasible, should be prepared in advance of the death. Even young children who do not understand the full implications of death are aware that something serious is going on. Sending them away may increase their fears about separation from their loved ones. Having familiar and caring people nearby before and after the death can reduce fear of abandonment or other stresses children may experience.
On the other hand, we do not want to keep our children under lock and key as a way of dealing with our own anxieties and needs. Our children should be given permission to play with friends or visit relatives if they wish to.
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. Somemental 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”.
- Communication about death, as with all communication, is easier when a child feels that she has our permission to talk about the subject and believes we are sincerely interested in her views and questions. Encourage her to communicate by listening attentively, respecting her views, and answering her questions honestly.
- Every child is an individual. Communication about death depends on her age and her own experiences. If she is very young, she may view death as temporary, and she may be more concerned about separation from her loved ones than about death itself.
- It is not always easy to “hear” what a child is really asking. Sometimes it may be necessary to respond to a question with a question in order to fully understand the child’s concern.
- A very young child can absorb only limited amounts of information. Answers need to be brief, simple, and repeated when necessary.
- A child often feels guilty and angry when she loses a close family member. She needs reassurance that she has been, and will continue to be, loved and cared for.
- A child may need to mourn a deeply felt loss on and off until she is in her adolescence. She needs support and understanding through this grief process and permission to show her feelings openly and freely.
- Whether a child should visit the dying or attend a funeral depends on her age and ability to understand the situation, her relationship with the dying or dead person, and, most important, whether she wishes it. A child should never be coerced or made to feel guilty if she prefers not to be involved. If she is permitted to visit a dying person or attend a funeral, she should be prepared in advance for what she will hear and see.
Needs of A Grieving Child
- information that is clear and understandable at their development level.
- to be reassured that their basic needs will be met.
- to be involved in planning for the funeral and anniversary
- to be reassured when grieving by adults is intense
- help with exploring fantasies about death, afterlife, and related issues.
- to be able to have and express their own thoughts and behaviors, especially when different from significant adults.
- to maintain age appropriate activities and interests.
- to receive help with “magical thinking.”
- to say good-bye to the deceased.
- to memorialize the deceased.
Before the Death
- help with anticipatory grief
- to be given information about the physical, emotional, and mental condition of the terminally ill person and given a choice of visiting or remaining away.
- to be allowed to care for the dying person.
- to participate in meaningful ways of saying goodbye.
- to have schedules and boundaries as close to normal as possible.
- to receive affection and be listened to.
Signals for Attention From a Grieving Child
- marked change in school performance.
- poor grades despite trying very hard.
- A lot of worry or anxiety manifested by refusing to go to school, go to sleep, or take part in age appropriate activities.
- not talking about the person or the death. Physically avoiding mention of the deceased.
- frequent angry outbursts or anger expressed in destructive ways.
- hyperactive activities, fidgeting, constant movement beyond regular playing
- persistent anxiety or phobias.
- accident proneness, possibly self-punishment or a call for attention.
- persistent nightmares or sleeping disorders.
- stealing, promiscuity, vandalism, illegal behavior
- persistent disobedience or aggression (longer than six months) and violations of the rights of others.
- opposition to authority figures.
- frequent unexplainable temper tantrums.
- social withdrawal
- alcohol or other drug abuse.
- inability to cope with problems and daily activities
- many complaints of physical ailments
- persistent depression accompanied by poor appetite, sleep difficulties, and thoughts of death.
- long term absence of emotion
- frequent panic attacks
- persistent symptoms of the deceased.
Characteristics of Age Groups (to be used only as a general guide)
Infants – 2 Years Old:
- Will sense a loss
- Will pick up on grief of a parent or caretaker
- May change eating, sleeping, toilet habits.
2-6 Years Old:
- Family is center of child’s world
- Confident family will care for her needs
- Plays grown-ups, imitates adults.
- Functions on a day-to-day basis.
- No understanding of time or death
- Cannot imagine life without mum or dad
- Picks up on nonverbal communication.
- Thinks dead people continue to do things (eat, drink, go to the bathroom), but only in the sky.
- Thinks if you walk on the grave the person feels it.
- Magical thinking
- you wish it, it happens (bring the dead back or wishing someone was dead)
- Death brings confusion, guilt [magically thought someone dead]
- Tendency to connect things which are not related.
6-9 Years Old:
- Personifies death: A person, monster who takes you away
- Sometimes a violent thing.
- Still has magical thinking, yet begins to see death as final, but outside the realm of the child’s realistic mind.
- Fails to accept that death will happen to them – or to anyone (although begins to suspect that it will).
- Fears that death is something contagious.
- Confusion of wording [soul/sole, dead body, live soul].
- Develops an interest in the causes of death (violence, old age, sickness).
9-12 Year Old:
- May see death as punishment for poor behavior.
- Develops morality – strong sense of good and bad behavior.
- Still some magical thinking.
- Needs reassurance that wishes do not kill.
- Begins an interest in biological factors of death.
- Theorizes: People die to make room for new people.
- Asks more about “what happened”
- Concerns about ritual, burying
- Questions relationship changes caused by death, life changes.
- Worries about who provides and cares for them.
- May regress to an earlier stage
- Interested in spiritual aspects of death.
- Views death as inevitable, universal, irreversible.
- Cognitive skills developed
- Thinks like an adult
- Questions meaning of life if it ends in death
- Sees aging process leading to death
- Sees self as invincible – it will not happen to me.
- Sees death as a natural enemy
- Need for adult guidance (grief process, coping skills).
- Needs someone to listen; to talk with.
- May feel guilt, anger, even some responsibility for death that occurred.
- Not sure how to handle own emotions [public and private].