Saying Goodbye - Talking to a Child About Death
Death is a touchy subject in any situation, and bringing it up around those who have recently suffered a loss is especially taboo. Adults are better equipped to deal with death because they can better understand the world around them, but those who really struggle with death the most are children.
Everyone has to deal with the loss of a loved one, regardless of how little they understand the gravity of the situation. Many children may not feel the gravity of the situation, believing that they their loved one has simply left. By providing them with the information and comfort that they need, we can work to solve the problems that they’ll have in such a troubled time.
How you choose to discuss death with your child will depend on the age and experiences of the child, as well as your own feelings and beliefs about life and this loss. Some parents are given the chance to address this issue after a nationwide event or news report, while others do so in the aftermath of a family crisis.
Leaving children unprepared for death is simply irresponsible of an adult, as it can be much worse for them to deal with a loss on their own, without the necessary information to cope with it. Death should be explained from your perspective, in the most mature way possible. You’d be surprised at how understanding young children can be.
First of all, avoid using euphemisms and concealing the death. Some parents use terms such as ‘sleep’ or ‘rest’ when explaining what death means, and this can be extremely misleading for a child. Because they take you at face value, they may genuinely believe that they relative has fallen asleep and will never wake up again, themselves beginning to fear going to sleep. Even if they don’t develop such a fear, at some point in their lives they will learn what death really is, and may resent your attempt to conceal the truth from them. Direct words and honesty are the best way to speak to children, and this cannot be truer when helping them cope with loss.
If your child has questions about this loss, don’t avoid them. It’s healthy for a child to be inquisitive, especially when they have such a weak grasp on what is actually happening. You can even push them to ask questions by leading them into it, with questions such as “How does this make you feel?”, or “What do you think this means?”. This will make them more inclined to direct their questions at you, and will get them thinking about all aspects of death and dealing with loss.
When they do ask you questions, don’t expect that you’ll be able to answer all of them. People can rarely know why a death has occurred, and how the death will affect you is a question that you may take years to truly answer. When a child poses a difficult question, don’t try to make up answers that you think they’ll want to hear. Rather, ask them what they think the answer is, and let their creativity guide them. This is an excellent way to have them tell you how they feel, and to push them towards finding their own way to coping with the loss.
Those we love don’t go away, they walk beside us everyday.
Immediately following the loss of a loved one, life can be very confusing, especially so for your child. Your child will likely respond by asking lots of similar questions, trying to get as much information about the events as possible. Rather than avoid these questions, or letting them irritate you, use the opportunity to calmly provide as much detail as possible, and to explain, step-by-step, the process that takes place when a person dies. If your loved one passed away after battling an illness, explain this to your child. It will help them settle the memories of your loved one in their head, and will better equip them for dealing with loss in the future.
Finally, it’s extremely important that you’re able to share your own emotions with your child, so that they understand that you too are grieving along with them. Hiding your emotions will only serve to alienate how your child is feeling, making them think that their emotions are unnatural, or unjust. By showing your emotions, you showcase the value of life and death, and the importance of grieving naturally. It’s necessary for a child to understand that death and grief is a process, and that only clear communication and self-exploration can help get you through it positively.
When a child feels that they have permission to talk about a subject, and are in act encouraged to discuss it, they become much more inclined and interested in sharing their views, and hearing what you have to say about the matter. Because they’ll be greatly impacted by the way that you deal with grief, it’s important that you set a strong example for how to overcome such an ordeal. This starts with a clear line of communication, attentive listening, being respectful, and answering questions honestly.
Every child, just like every person, will approach death in their own way. Based on the child’s age and experiences, the way they do this may be better or worse, and as a parent, it is your goal to ensure that it’s better. For some young children, the separation from their loved one can be more difficult than the death itself, and they’ll rely on your support to overcome this. Children also may find it hard to pose questions the way they really mean them, making it confusing as to what they’re trying to ask. Be attentive to the underlying thoughts behind their questions, and try your best to address every aspect of what the child is thinking.
When answering, don’t overload them with information. Keep your answers brief and simple, and reassure them through every step of the way. Ultimately, the child is looking for your support, and your love can be the best solution of all.
Finally, remember that no matter how difficult this loss may be for you, it could be even harder for a young, confused child. Try your best to walk them through this process hand in hand, so that one day they can teach their own children about how to best overcome loss.