How to Teach Your Children about Death

Few adults come to terms with the concept of death, and so it is not surprising that children can have difficulties cop­ing with their own grief following the death of a relative or friend, or even a pet. One problem a child frequently faces after a bereavement is that her feelings are ignored. Adults are usually too busy trying to manage their own distress to consider the feel­ings of a young child, but that child will be grieving all the same.

A child under the age of eight or nine does not fully under­stand death in the rational way that adults do. Her reaction to bereavement is unpredictable. One minute she may tell you that she knows her grandmother has died and that she has gone forever, and the next minute she may ask you when grandma’s coming back home. Don’t get annoyed when your child poses this question; a young child simply can’t under­stand that death is irreversible.

Children (same as adults) show a wide range of grief reac­tions when faced with the death of a friend or relative:

  • Shock. The overwhelming sensation that arises the moment a child is informed of the death. She may become very quiet, or even angry and hostile. It’s an instant response to the burst of sadness and confusion that overwhelms her. At this time, your child needs your comfort and reassurance.
  • Denial. This reaction usually passes within a few days. Until it does, a child acts as though the death hasn’t occurred at all. For instance, she may buy a chocolate bar for her grand­mother, just as she did before her grandmother died. Denial is a psychological mechanism that allows the news to filter through slowly. If your child behaves this way, don’t con­tinually confront her with the facts. She will face them eventually, when she is psychologically ready to do so.
  • Searching. In this grief reaction, a child may literally look for the deceased person—in the rooms she used, and even in the chairs she sat on—in the hope of finding her. This searching stems from the child’s deep desire for the death never to have happened. As with denial, this phase will pass within a few weeks.
  • Guilt. Amid the confusion and despair associated with bereavement, a child may develop a sense of guilt about the death. She may believe that the loss occurred as a punish­ment because she was naughty earlier that morning, or because she didn’t tidy up her room the previous night when she was asked. The child may even blame herself because once, in a temper, she wished that person would die. Guilt isn’t rational. However, it still hurts, and can stay with a child for years.
  • Fear. A child’s fear arising from bereavement can take many forms. The child may fear that she is going to die very soon, or fear that someone close to her will die. As a result, she may be afraid to leave her house or to let you out of her sight. In time, she will regain her confidence, but this sort of fear can last for several weeks.

The most common bereavement children experience is that of the death of an elderly relative, although, sadly, some chil­dren do have to cope with the death of a sibling, parent, or friend. The closer the child’s relationship with the dead person, the stronger her grief will be. Adults frequently make the mis­take of assuming that children can’t experience genuine grief, and consequently don’t pay enough attention to them at this time. Your child’s grief reaction will probably be as strong as your own, even though she can’t voice her feelings as clearly as you. So keep an eye on your child’s behavior in the days fol­lowing a family bereavement. She may show her distress in unexpected ways—for instance, poor concentration in school, fighting with friends, bed-wetting, or unusual reliance on a security object. Be careful not to misinterpret this behavior; your child’s reaction is a sign of grief, not a deliberate attempt to upset you.

Following are some ways to help your child come to terms with her feelings about bereavement:

  • Encourage your child to talk about her emotions. Pick a reason­ably quiet time when you and she are together, and ask her how she is feeling. She will probably say, “Fine,” but then you might say that you are feeling upset and you are sure she is too. Sharing your emotions with your child will let her know that it’s permissible for her to describe her own feelings. Whatever she says, listen respectfully.

  • Give your child support. There is nothing like a supportive cuddle from mom or dad to lift the gloom from a troubled child. It won’t bring the dead person back, but it will ease some of the pain, no matter what age your child is.
  • Let your child express her feelings through play. Encourage your child to play with modeling clay, paints, dolls, and building blocks. These provide a vehicle for her to release her inner emotions nonverbally. In addition, your local library prob­ably has books about bereavement, written especially for young children.
  • Talk about the good times and the memories that you will have forever. These won’t disappear.

A child may have had to consider death before any family bereavement, if she has looked after a pet. Small pets that are Popular with young children (such as goldfish, hamsters, rab­bits, gerbils) often have a short life span. The passing of a pet can be used as an opportunity to discuss the concept of death.

Filed Under: Family & Relationships


About the Author: Roberta Southworth is a psychiatrist by profession. She likes to help out people by writing informative tips on how people can to solve their family and relationship issues. She is currently staying in Ireland. She has 5 years of couple counseling experience.

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