Explaining the concept of death to a child is difficult. Most parents try and avoid the subject until the need arises. They don't want to introduce such a sad fact of life unless necessary.
When a loved one dies, children show their grief in different ways. How children cope with the news, depends on their age, how close they were to the deceased and how death has been presented to them.
Here are some tips on the process and ensure your child has a good understanding of the concept:
Discuss death when it's not personal.
Children will experience grief, anxiety and loss when someone close to them dies, regardless of how old they are. Rather than trying to explain grief to them when the situation is all too fresh, try discussing it with them when there is little personal attachment. Talk about loss when a plant dies or when a pet dies. Using these chances to discuss death will allow the child to have a more clear understanding when a loved one dies.
use simple, clear words.
It's a good idea to present the idea in a clear manner so that the child is not confused. Don't mention death in passing. Take some time during the day to sit down with your child and discuss it openly. Let them ask questions freely and answer them honestly and clearly. There are four simple words that can be used to describe death:
To break the news that someone has died, approach your child in a caring way. Use words that are simple and direct. For example, "I have some sad news to tell you. Grandma died today." Pause and give your child time to process.
Remember that grief will also cause anxiety for your child. If their loved one died of an illness they will start to think that anyone who is sick will die. Let them know that not everyone who is sick dies and reassure them of your own health.
listen and comfort but be honest.
Everyone - including children - react differently when hearing someone close to them has died. Some will cry. Some will have loads of questions. Others will not react at all. Stay with your child for a while to offer comfort and to answer any questions they may have. Make sure to check in from time to time in case they have more questions or need to share their new and changing emotions.
Be honest. Parents can say that the child will not be able to speak or see the deceased person anymore - while this may sound harsh, it gives the child something clear to understand.
put emotions into words.
Encourage kids to use words to describe their emotions. Talk about your own feelings - it helps children be more open with their own. Say "I know you are sad, I am sad too. We both loved Grandma and she loved us too."
tell your child what to expect.
If the death of a loved one means your child's regular schedule will change, inform them of those changes. Letting them know there will be changes but some things will stay the same will give them comfort. Informing them of the changes will also allow them to prepare for the changes before they happen and not have any unanswered questions about the future. For example, "Grandma used to pick you up from school but now Auntie will."
Let them know what the coming days will be like. Letting them in on some of the planning process will prepare them for the coming days.
talk about funerals.
Allow children to be involved in rituals like viewings, memorial and burials. Tell your child ahead of time what will happen. For example, "Lots of people that loved Grandma will be there to celebrate her. We will talk about our memories with her." Let children know that lots of people will say words to them like "I'm sorry for your loss" and "My condolences". Inform them that these are polite things people say at funerals and they should respond with a simple "Thank you".
You may need to explain viewings, burial or cremation. Use your families beliefs to best explain these to your child. Use your childs age and interest to gauge how much detail should be presented to them.
Recently during a viewing one of our clients explained to her Granddaughter, who was upset that the body was cold, that "... 's light had gone out. And the light is what keeps the body warm. When you die your light leaves the body and goes to a better place."
Explain what happens after the funeral - everyone will get together and enjoy each others company and comfort each other - and someday everyone will feel better.
give your child a role.
Even a small role will let your child feel involved. Being involved will help them in an unfamiliar and emotional situation. For example, they may want to read a poem, or help pick photos to be displayed. Let them decide how or if they'd like to be involved.
help your child remember the person.
In the days and weeks to come, encourage your child to talk about the person who died. Do not avoid mentioning the person. Sharing happy memories helps along the grieving process and activates happy feelings.
take care of yourself.
Losing someone will cause your child to think more frequently about death. Reassure your child the loss of one loved one does not mean they will necessarily lose another. Your child may go worst case scenario. This is why - even though you are more likely to be grieving also - you need to take care of yourself. You do not want to give your child any reason to fear that they may lose you also. Taking care of yourself also allows you to be there for your child and reassure them of your own good health.
Grief is a process that happens over time. Be sure to have several conversations with your child to see how they are doing. Remind them that healing does not mean forgetting about their loved one. It means remembering them, the good times they shared and letting memories of love fill their hearts as they continue to live their lives.
We, at Celebrate Life Funeral Services, have many resources on how to speak your child about death. Give us a call or send us an email and we can put together a package for you and your child.