Death is the ultimate truth of life. It is inevitable and does not discriminate based on age, gender or religion. Yet, most of us don’t know how to prepare for death. Even those of who have an ailing parent, child, relative or friend, are never quite ready for the end of life. After all, it’s not a single event. It’s a journey that requires a lot of navigation and one where no two routes are alike. As we become adults, we may have the chance to learn about this journey from others before having to go on it ourselves. However, children may not have the same opportunity.
A child's first encounter with death may be through their pet or grandparents or even their parents and siblings. As adults, while we may be equipped with the tools to manage the situation and our emotions, a child may not even realise the gravity of the occurrence. It's not possible to shield children from the pain of loss. However, identifying and addressing emotions may aid them in developing resilience and protection against mental health issues and personality disorders.
The question now is how we can help a child. What are the correct steps to help them develop a healthy coping mechanism? How do we answer their questions and how much information should we really share? Following are some guidelines which might be helpful.
How can I prepare my child for death?
The first step is to ask the child how much they already know about the situation. Children are very observant. Chances are that they know someone is sick or may pass away eventually. Reassure them that talking about death will not make it come faster or slower. Young children often engage in "magical thinking" where they believe that their thoughts and actions can cause or prevent someone's death. If the child is a teenager, ask them how much information they want. This will help you decide which details to hold back. Be honest throughout the process. Don't say that you're "waiting to get the test results" or "will ask the doctor" if something is already certain. Children may realise you're hiding something and that will only create mistrust which can be a hindrance to coping with grief. Lastly, if you don't know something, it's okay to say so. Sometimes it's even comforting for the child to know that their parent is in the same boat as them.
(Source: Canadian Virtual Hospice)
What to do when a loved one has passed?
Here are some tips to address specific situations
Death of a pet
Children can form extremely strong bonds with their pets and their passing may be extremely upsetting to them. Don't try to downplay the situation or buy them a new pet immediately. Allow them to process and grieve. Talk to them calmly but rationally and avoid using confusing phrases like "they went to sleep".
Death of a grandparent
This is a common occurrence in many children's lives and young children may often ask if their parents "will be next". It is important to let them know them that while death is unavoidable, it is natural and nothing to be afraid of. More importantly, you have to reassure young ones that you will probably live for a long time. Older children may assess the situation more rationally. However, if they had a strong emotional bond with their grandparents, it is important to acknowledge the gravitas of their loss and reassure them that grieving is natural and it's okay to cry and talk about it.
Death of a parent or sibling/child
Such deaths are less commonly experienced by children and can be immensely devastating even for adults. While the first step would be to try and talk to them, they may refuse to acknowledge the situation entirely and therapy may be required. Therapy provides an outlet when the child feels like he or she is unable to talk to their family members about it. A therapist and other professional help may also be needed as the adults cope with their own grief.
(Source: Child Mind Institute)
Should children attend the funeral?
If your culture permits children to attend a funeral, it is generally beneficial as they provide an opportunity for closure. However, some children may not be ready for such an experience. Never force a child to attend a funeral and if they choose to, ensure that they are well prepared. Explain to them what a funeral is and why it is important to hold one. Try to include as much detail as possible. For example: let them know that it will be a sad event where people may talk and cry about the loved ones passing. If the child asks why they cannot go to a funeral, let them know the reason keeping in mind that they may not take it well. Talking about the afterlife can be especially comforting to children even if they don't coincide with your personal beliefs. Lastly, don't be afraid to ask for help from another elder if you believe it's better for the child to hear about these things from them.
(Source: Child Mind Institute)
How do I know if my child understands death?
It is difficult to predict how a child may react to death. While the death of a pet may be easy for an adult to accept, it could gravely impact a child. Similarly, the child may not display intense emotion at the passing of a close one. A variety of factors influence how children react. Age is an important one. A child aged 0-2 years may not notice if a person has passed but will be concerned if their caregiver is absent or acting unusually. Children aged 2-5 years may understand if a person has "left" but may not comprehend the permanence of it. They might believe that their loved one could return if they behave well. Older children may understand death but find difficulty expressing themselves, perhaps even feeling the need to "act strong" to support someone else in the family. At the same time, going back to a routine may be a coping mechanism. A good starting point is to ensure the children that you're there for them and willing to answer any questions they may have. Some common indirect behaviours children may display to cope with the grief are:
- Clinginess: Even an outgoing child may suddenly need constant reassurance of your presence. They may also want to spend more time indoors.
- Distance: Some children may act distant and refuse to talk to or meet loved ones. They might want to spend more time away from home, with friends or at school.
- Aggression: This is a common way to release built-up emotions or express helplessness.
- Regression: Acting younger than their age can be a sign of insecurity. Young children may start wetting or soiling themselves, or wanting a long-forgotten bottle or dummy.
- Lack of concentration: The child may find it hard to concentrate at school and fall behind with their work.
- Sleep problems: Children may find it hard to sleep and become afraid of the dark.
- Trying too hard: Young children may believe that their behaviour can influence events. They might think if they behave really well and do things such as eating broccoli and cleaning out the hamster cage their mum might come back to life.
What are some activities to help the child?
The first step would be to cope with the death yourself. Allow yourself to grieve and express your feelings so you don't explode uncontrollably because children learn behaviours from their surroundings. Some ways to help a child are (Source: the Bump):
These are especially helpful for children who have trouble experiencing grief through words. Whether it's just doodling or journaling, are can be a therapeutic way to work through emotions. The child may even want to create "a special phone" to "talk to the departed individual" or a box they can collect their thoughts in. Whatever be the project, help them if they need it and don't be afraid to provide them with old picture or recordings of the person.
These can be very helpful in reassuring the child that even though a loved one has passed, their family is still intact. It can increase feelings of safety. Rituals can be as simple as setting aside time to talk about the deceased person or holding a private service annually.
Sometimes, reading about a character's journey with grief can help a child find someone to relate to and better express themselves. Check your local library to find any such books. Here are some suggestions provided by the Child Mind Institute:
- Samantha Jane’s Missing Smile: A Story About Coping With the Loss of a Parent, by Donna Pincus, for ages 5 and up
- I Miss You: A First Look at Death,by Pat Thomas, for ages 4 and up
- Good Answers to Tough Questions About Death, by Joy Berry, for ages 6-12
- A Complete Book About Death for Kids, by Earl Grollman, for all ages
- Everett Anderson’s Goodbye, by Lucille Clifton, for ages 5-8, about a father’s death
- My Grandson Lew, by Charlotte Zolotow, for ages 5 and up, about a grandparent’s death
- When Something Terrible Happens, by Marge Heegaard, for ages 8 and up
- When Someone Very Special Dies, by Marge Heegaard, for ages 8 and up
- Help Me Say Goodbye: Activities for Helping Kids Cope When a Special Person Dies, by Janis Silverman, for ages 8 and up
- Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children, by Bryan Mellonie, for all ages
- The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, by Leo Buscaglia, for all ages
- The Next Place, by Warren Hanson, for all ages
While death is a painful experience for anyone, it can be particularly instrumental in children’s psychological development during their formative years. Hence, it is crucial to create a network of trust and support which will help return normalcy to the child’s life. Undoubtedly, death is a painful topic but preparing for it can ease the process of recovery. It might provide useful to build a legacy of the person, something for the children to remember them by. Various online platforms such as Timeliss Life provide the opportunity to craft and send messages at a future date. A tribute provider such as Timeliss Memories, can help safely store documents, plans and messages so future generations may always have a link to their heritage. Regardless of how you choose to commemorate your loved one, what matters the most is to ensure that the whole family is able to navigate this journey in a safe and healthy way.