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How Can I Help a Child with the Death of a Loved One?

Posted on July 14, 2017

Blog post by: California Cognitive Behavioral Institute

Children grieve just as adults do. Any child old enough to form a relationship will experience some form of grief when a relationship is severed. Adults may not view a child behavior as grief as it is often demonstrated in behavioral patterns which we misunderstand and do not appear to us to be grief such as "moody," "cranky," or "withdrawn."

When a death occurs children need to be surrounded by feelings of warmth, acceptance and understanding. This may be a tall order to expect of the adults who are experiencing their own grief and upset. Caring adults can guide children through this time when the child is experiencing feelings for which they have no words and thus cannot identify. In a very real way, this time can be a growth experience for the child, teaching about love and relationships.

The first task is to create an atmosphere in which the child's thoughts, fears and wishes are recognized. This means that they should be allowed to participate in any of the arrangements, ceremonies and gatherings which are comfortable for them. First, explain what will be happening and why it is happening at a level the child can understand. A child may not be able to speak at a grandparent's funeral but would benefit greatly from the opportunity to draw a picture to be placed in the casket or displayed at the service.

Be aware that children will probably have short attention spans and may need to leave a service or gathering before the adults are ready. Many families provide a non-family attendant to care for the children in this event.

The key is to allow the participation, not to force it. Forced participation can be harmful. Children instinctively have a good sense of how involved they wish to be. They should be listened to carefully. Parents who openly talk about their grief, cry, and express frustration, send a message to their children that it is okay for them to do so. Because children cannot carry the burden of all your pain, try to maintain times for play and talk without conversation about the dead person.

Balance, as best you can, the sharing of sad feelings, with the sharing of more pleasant activities and times shared together. This lets your surviving children know how much they are valued. If your child has had an experience with death, (perhaps a pet, or a grandparent), it may be easier to explain the death. Here are some questions which many children wonder about and some suggested answers:

Is death like sleeping? Death is different from sleeping. When you go to sleep your body still works. You still breathe and your heart beats and you dream. When a person is dead, his or her body doesn't work anymore. Remember that children who are told that death is like sleeping may develop fears about falling asleep.

Why did they die? If the death was from an illness, explain that the person's body couldn't fight the sickness any more. It stopped working. Make sure your children know that if they get the flu or a cold, or if mom or dad get sick, their bodies can fight the illness and get better. Their bodies still work. Explain that people do not usually die when they get sick. Most people get better. If the death was from an accident, explain that the person was hurt so badly that his or her body stop working. Explain that when most people get hurt they can get better and live a long, long time.

Will you die? Will I die? Children are looking for reassurance. Let your child know that most people live for a very long time. Children also need to know who will take care of them if a parent or guardian dies. Let them know who to go to for help if there is a family emergency.

Did I do or think something bad to cause the death? Maybe your child had a fight with the person who died. Maybe your child wished this person wasn't around to get so much attention from other family members. Maybe your child said, "I wish you'd go away from me," or even "I wish you were dead." Reassure your children that saying and wishing things do not cause a death to happen.

Will they come back? "Forever" is a hard concept for young children to understand. They see that people go away and come back. Cartoon characters die and then jump up again. Young children may need to be told several times that the person won't be back ever.

Why did God let this happen? Answer questions related to God and your faith according to your own beliefs. You may also want the counsel of your clergy. It's okay to not have answers for everything. Children can accept that you, too, have a hard time understanding some things. It is best to avoid suggesting God "took" someone to be with him, or that "only the good die young". Some children may fear that God will take them away too. They may try to be "bad" so that they won't die, also.

Returning to School

Going back to school following a death can be difficult. You can make this easier by helping your children with possible answers to questions and remarks. Schoolmates may not always be sensitive to your children's feelings. Tell the child that, if they don't want to, they don't have to answer questions. Explain that others may be uncomfortable talking about the person who died. Your home can be a place where you and your child can talk about and remember the loved one. You may want to talk with the school principal, your child's teacher, the school social worker, or counselor, to plan for a surviving child's return to school. You may also want to discuss what information you would like shared with his/her classmates.

Source: Trent, Marion. "Thoughts on Death and Grief!" Blog post. California Cognitive Behavioral Institute, 20 Feb. 2014. Web. 29 June 2017.

 

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