TELLING CHILDREN ABOUT DEATH

WHEN SHOULD A CHILD BE TOLD?

When a death occurs in a child’s close circle, parents and family are often at a loss as to how and when and how much to tell the child.  Although the adults may want to wait until they have assimilated the death and dealt with their own grief, it is important that the child be told very soon. 

The child needs to hear this news from an adult with whom he has a close, comfortable relationship.  It is best that this talk take place in a familiar setting, home if possible.  Even if the death has occurred in a distant place, it is important that the child be informed so that he does not hear bits of information which he can easily misinterpret.  If it is comfortable for the child, touch and hold him.

WHAT SHOULD BE SAID?

The child should be told the truth, that someone has died.  The child should not be told that the dead person is going to have a big sleep or go on a long trip.  This would only confuse a younger child and possibly make him fearful of sleep or journeys.  Whether you tell the child about the person going to heaven or having an after-life depends on your religious beliefs.  If the child is not familiar with these terms because they are not really a part of your beliefs, think carefully whether you want to introduce these ideas.

It is sometimes helpful to remind the child that he has observed other deaths in nature, pets or wild animals, and that it is a natural part of the life cycle.  Encourage the child to ask questions so that you can understand and respond to his concerns.  Acknowledge how hard the loss is for all of the family.

Do not isolate children at the time of death.  Keep them a part of the family.  If they are old enough, let them help out at this time, answering the telephone, hanging up the visitors’ coats, listing condolence notes.  Give them things to do that will be useful.

HOW DO CHILDREN REACT TO DEATH?

Children react in a variety of ways to death.  Young children may go about their business as if nothing has happened.  They are not unfeeling or hardhearted but they may need time to assimilate this news.  Children may show sadness or they may become excited and even seem elated.  They may be angry at the deceased for leaving them or at you because you are alive.  They are at the mercy of their emotions and need help accepting their feelings. 

It is hard to prepare a family for a child’s reaction to death because children do react so differently.  Follow their lead; answer their questions; allow them to return to their routines and favorite toys because that is often the way children think through important events.

 

WHAT DO CHILDREN WORRY ABOUT?

Children worry that they or others will die.  If this death was a sudden one, explain how rare this is and reassure the child that you and he will not die at any minute.  If the death was the end of a long illness or occurred in a very old person, it is probably easier for you to reassure the child that he will not die and other people he knows will not die in the imminent future.

Children may feel guilty about the death of a close relative.  Perhaps they were not quiet enough in the home or had angry thoughts about the person.  Reassure a child who looks worried and guilty that he was not responsible for the death.Worrying Child

Some children worry about the dead person suffocating in the grave.  Reassure the child that the dead person does not need to breathe and that the person no longer suffers or feels pain.

The child may be fearful of adult emotional displays.  It is appropriate for the child to witness the sadness of your family and to understand that it is acceptable for him and for adults to express these feelings.  Adults should try to protect children from uncontrolled displays of grief, however, as that much emotion may feel frightening to the child.

 

SHOULD THE CHILD GO TO THE FUNERAL?

Child at cemetery
A pre-school child might be bewildered and not understand the funeral or burial process.  Older children should be encouraged to attend the funeral or memorial service, but if they are reluctant to attend, do not force them or make them feel ashamed.  If a child attends the funeral or service, he should have a special person (not a person centrally affected by the death) to attend to his needs.  If the child becomes uncomfortable or overly restless, the child’s attendant, someone the child knows and loves, may take him out of the funeral.

The child may be told that a funeral or service is a time when we say goodbye to a loved one.  Explain to the child the funeral or service procedures so that he will know what to expect.  Let the child participate in these procedures if he wants to.

If you are comfortable with the child attending the burial, encourage him to attend.  The child should again have his special friend with him.  If the child chooses not to attend, respect that wish.  The child who is at home without the rest of the family should have a familiar and sympathetic babysitter.  You may want to encourage the child to visit the grave at a later date.

RESUMING ORDINARY LIFE

Notify your child’s school or day care center about the death so that teachers may understand the child’s sadness.  Often children regress, do less well in school or seem “out of it” when a death has occurred.  An understanding teacher can offer extra support to a child if she is informed about the death.

If the death was in the immediate family, do not change the role of the child.  Do not talk of the child replacing the dead sibling or now being the man of the house.  Encourage the child to see his friends, to play and re-involve himself in his usual activities.

We know that grief is normal and that after a death adults and children will seem sad, perhaps irritable or angry, and function less well at work or school.  Individuals may develop brief physical symptoms and have trouble sleeping or eating.  If you or the child seem unable to cope with the death and to resume ordinary living, professional help and support may be sought through your minister or in a mental health setting.

Contact Information:

The Child Center and Adult Services, Inc. - Shady Grove Professional Building,
16220 Frederick Road, Suite 502, Gaithersburg, MD 20877-4022
(T) 301-978-9750 - (F) 301-978-9753 - E-mail: info@ccascounseling.org

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