It is never easy dealing with death. As adults, it overwhelms us. For children it can be harder for them to understand what dying means. We want to protect our kids from emotional pain and suffering, but Clinical Psychologist, Lyn Worsley, says this is the worst thing we can do.
As a parent, you may ask yourself many questions, the most common being: ‘When is the right time to tell my child that a family member is likely to die from their illness?’ There is not necessarily a ‘right time’ to tell your child but one thing is for certain: children benefit from honesty and being prepared in advance.
Be Honest With Your Child
Telling your child in advance about the potential death of a loved one creates a safe environment of open and honest communication, leaving less chance for your child to imagine other distorted scenarios. It also prepares them for the physical changes they may see in the unwell person and shows the child that they are part of the family and can grieve with the adults. Knowing about the impending death, the child will also be able to say goodbye in a way that makes them comfortable when time might be limited.
It is important not to withhold information from children. They may learn about an impending death from overhearing adult conversations or from outside the immediate family. So, the sooner parents or guardians open up about an approaching death, the less likely your child will hear it from elsewhere.
Use Simple, Clear Language
When first telling your child approach them in a kind and caring way. Use words that are simple and direct. You might find using words like ‘death’ and ‘dying’ uncomfortable but phrases like ‘passed away’ and ‘went to sleep forever’ can invoke confusion. If you say something like, ‘Grandma has gone to sleep forever’, your child might be too scared to sleep in the event they will never wake up.
Younger children might not know what death means so you might need to describe it ensuring they understand that death never goes away. Perhaps you can even consult a caring friend or family member about how to approach death with your child and write down reminders for when you take the plunge.
Listen, Answer Questions, And Comfort
Every child reacts differently learning about the death of a loved one. Some kids cry. Some ask questions. Some might not react at all. That’s all okay. Just make sure you are there to offer your child hugs and reassurance.
Your child might ask questions. If you are not sure how to answer straight away it is okay to say, ‘I don’t know but I will find out for you’. Encourage your child to talk about their feelings but avoid forcing them.
Put Emotions Into Words
Encourage your child to tell you what they are thinking and feeling as the days and weeks go by, and after the death. Talk to them about your own feelings as it allows them to feel comfortable with theirs. But also allow your child to grieve in their own way, even if that means they are silent. It is normal for children to feel lonely and to seem unaffected by the loss. There is not a right way to grieve.
Tell Your Child What To Expect
If the death of a loved ones means a change in your child’s routine explain to them what will happen once that person has died. Prepare your child for a future without the loved one. Discuss how special events like birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and special moments will be celebrated without the person. Even go so far as to ask for your child’s input and advice on how to celebrate future events.
Whatever happens, don’t change your daily routine. Children require consistency and stability. Try to maintain your daily routines at home and ensure your child continues to take part in their normal activities, but again, don’t force them to.
Talk About The Funeral And Rituals
Allow your child to take part in the rituals like viewings, funerals and memorial services but prepare them with what they can expect. For example, say something like: ‘Lots of people loved Grandma and they are all coming together to sing, pray and talk about Grandma’s life. People might cry and hug one another.’
You might also need to talk about what burial and cremation are and share your family’s beliefs about what happens to a person after death. Explain what happens after the service as a way for people to get together, eat food and share happy memories of the loved one.
Perhaps give your child a small role if they are happy to take part, such as reading a poem, choosing a song or gathering some photos to display.
Help Your Child To Feel Better
Provide all the comfort your child requires but try not to dwell on sadness. After talking, listening and answering questions suggest an activity, such as baking or making art, that helps your child feel better.
Never hide your grief from your child. Seeing you cry after the death of a loved one shows your child that it is normal and healthy to feel sad. You may feel uncomfortable and helpless but avoid distancing yourself from your child.
And remember to make yourself feel better by taking care of yourself as difficult as it may seem. Children learn from what they see, so it is important to be a role model for self-care at this delicate time.
Give Your Child Time To Heal
Grief can be an ongoing process. It is important to keep conversations going with your child to see how they are feeling and doing. Share memories of the loved one with them to stir up good feelings that support you both. Let your child know that it can take time to feel better after a loved one dies. Sometimes support groups, counselling or other resources can help kids who need support outside of the home.
Still Enjoy Laughter
Finally, remember that death doesn’t put a stop to laughter. It can be a great healing tool. Talking and laughing about memories of your loved one just shows how important they were in your life and aids healing and closure. It is not wrong for you to laugh once a loved one has died.
James is the founder of Feel The Magic, a non-profit organisation that provides grief education and support to bereaved children and their families to help alleviate the pain and isolation felt by the loss of a parent, sibling or legal guardian. Back in 2012, in the wake of losing his mother, James decided to dedicate his life to giving grieving children a voice and a safe place to grow and thrive. He believes through Feel The Magic, he has been able to offer lifelines of hope to families who have suffered unimaginable losses, facilitating a journey of recovery and self-discovery.