Coping with a death or other significant loss can be difficult for the strongest of adults. It can be even more difficult and confusing for children. Here are a few ways to assist a child during this process:
Tell the Child What Will Happen or Has Happened. It is important to communicate openly and honestly with children. When a death is imminent or has already occurred, many people try to soften the blow by using euphemistic phrases such as "He's going to sleep soon" or "She's gone away." Dodging the issue in this manner, however well intentioned, can result in further confusion. Telling a child that a loved one has "gone away" suggests that the person had a choice in the matter, and can unwittingly communicate that other people may abandon the child too. Alternatively, the child might think that the loved one can come back, which can set them up for further disappointment, confusion, and/or sadness.
- Showing Some Vulnerability is Okay. It is okay for children to see that adults are upset, and that loss is difficult for anyone to get through, regardless of age and experience. It is important not to feel as though you must have all the answers, or present yourself as invulnerable. At the same time, it is NOT okay for adults to ask children, either explicitly or implicitly, to assist them in coping with their grief. In other words, children should not be expected to do or say something to make things better for the adults. Making a child into a confidant in this manner is harmful; children are not mature enough emotionally to cope with that sort of pressure. It can be quite difficult for grieving adults to find the right balance between sharing enough with children to help them understand what has happened, and sharing too much (which can lead to coping problems for the children).
- What To Tell Children Depends on Their Age. Children are by definition immature, and have different understandings of what it means to be dead, to lose something important to you, and how to cope with loss. It is important to take into account a child's developmental level when deciding how much and what to say. It is not until about ages 9 to 12 that a child fully comprehends the meaning and reality of death. Very young children may experience death as a loss, but they will not understand the irreversible nature of the loss, nor will they be able to verbalize that loss. Children ages 2 to 6 may also have difficulty understanding the permanence of death. They will likely ask a great deal of questions about what has occurred, and may act out with negative or regressive behaviors, and possibly display fears of abandonment. Children ages 6 to 9 are generally somewhat frightened of death as they begin to understand that it is a permanent condition. However, they also tend to express curiosity about the nature of death.
As young children are naturally self-centered, their questions and thoughts about death tend to revolve around themselves. For example, they may wonder if they somehow caused the death ("I was naughty so Daddy left."), if death will happen to them ("Will I wake up tomorrow if I go to bed tonight?"), and who is going to take care of them ("Now that Grandma is gone, who will baby-sit when Mom and Dad are away?"). Answer such questions honestly when they arise, but also with sensitivity. Children need to know that death is permanent and isn't going to change. They also need to know in no uncertain terms that the death was not caused by anything they did or did not do. Finally, they need to be comforted (to the extent that they become upset by the news of the death).
Children are not always able to verbalize their thoughts about death, or know the right questions are to ask. They may be frightened of asking questions, or of the answers they may find out. For this reason, parents may want to step in and provide answers to some common childhood questions about death, even if the child has not asked the questions. Whether or not to offer such information is a judgment call that each parent has to make independently based on their knowledge of their child.
What a parent will say about death is often heavily influenced by their religious or spiritual beliefs concerning the nature of death and dying. For example, some parents believe that heaven and hell are metaphorical or poetic concepts with no underlying reality. Others believe that these are literally real places where an immortal soul will reside after death. Some parents believe in the possibility of reunion with deceased relatives and loved ones in heaven, while others believe in reincarnation. Still others believe that no afterlife exists at all. Whatever the nature of parents' beliefs about death, it is important to remember to be sensitive to their children's developmental needs as they communicate those beliefs to their children.
As mentioned previously, explanations concerning death should always be age-appropriate. In general, older children will want, and often can handle more of the truth than younger children. For example, given a situation where a four-year-old's grandmother has died, a parent might simply say:
"Grandma was very sick and died, so you won't get to see her again (in this life), but you know she loved you very much."
Parents may offer more details to an older child. For example, an eight-year-old who has lost his grandmother might be told the following,
"Grandma had a heart problem. She tried some medicine from her doctor, but it didn't work. She really wanted to fix the problem, but it wasn't possible, and she has died. Though she loved all of us very much and will miss us, and though we feel the same about her, we won't get to see her again (in this life). It is very sad."