Talking to kids about death
Children don't always understand the concept of death. Sometimes, all they know is that a loved one has left and will not be returning. If this is the extent of their knowledge about death, they can become resentful of the loved one who has died or even afraid. If a child is exposed to death, it is up to the parents to help the child understand why it occurred and help them through their mourning process.
One of the first and most effective ways for children to express their grief is to attend the funeral. Many times, children are not included in funerals for fear that it will cause them too much pain. Yes, funerals are painful; but it is an integral part of the healing process to have the opportunity to say a final goodbye. According to Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D. and director for the Center for Loss & Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado, funerals are important to survivors of any age because they:
• Help acknowledge that someone has actually died.
• Provide a structure to support and assist survivors through their initial period of mourning.
• Provide a time to honor, remember and affirm the life of the person who died.
• Allow a "search for meaning" within the context of each person's religious or philosophical views.
Children should be encouraged, but never forced to attend a funeral. One bad experience can prevent them from attending funerals for an extended period of time.
Denial is a strong component of death and it is actually a normal and healthy part of the healing process. Children's natural curiosity will guide their questions about death and dying and it is essential to their growth and understanding to answer honestly and factually so as not to create an unrealistic portrayal of death and the events and emotions that may follow.
Children may be more susceptible to experience adverse reactions to death because of their limited exposure to the situation; because of this, children may also experience a wide range of emotions including anger, sadness and even guilt. This array of emotions can contribute to the magical thinking that somehow the death of their loved one is their fault.
To help a child grasp his or her emotions after death of a loved one, keep the discussion simple though honesty is vital, too much information can confuse a child, especially when confronted with a new concept. When attempting to ease a child's anxiety, don't be afraid to cry. Tears may actually comfort the child, telling them it's okay to be sad and that his or her feelings are perfectly normal.
Because each child will handle death differently due to a variety of influences including age, personality and social and religious background, The Ohio Funeral Directors Association stresses that the child should always be the main focus to determine how to address the subject of death when the discussion arises.
Grief for children is an experience that will be as individual as they are. While it is difficult as a parent to see your child hurting, it is a normal and natural expression of loss. Parents can help by talking to their child about the experience of grief and sharing both happy and sad memories of the person who died. Parents should always allow children to find their way through their grief with support and encouraging activities that help them express what the person meant to them and their life.
Renee Hawley is the director of grief care services for Schoedinger Funeral and Cremation Service.