When children lose a parent, a sibling or any other significant person in their lives, it can be difficult to know just how to help them cope with the loss, especially when you are grieving as well. Explaining death in an age-appropriate way is very important in helping children understand loss, and remaining open and available to discuss their questions and feelings are key to healthy coping.
Explaining death to children
How much children understand about death depends mostly upon their age, but also on their life experiences. Young children are very literal and need death explained in concrete terms. Avoid the use of euphemisms such as telling kids that their parent "went to sleep," "went away" or that you "lost them." Phrases such as these can create a fear of going to sleep, separation anxiety when they are apart from their parent or guardian, or general confusion about what actually happened to their loved one. Though you may wish to shelter them from some of the pain, it is best to always tell the truth in age-appropriate terms.
Young children also have trouble understanding what death means and may need to hear the explanations over and over. This can be difficult when you are grieving, but be patient and open, and allow your child to work through his or her grief as much as possible. Children in this age group may demonstrate changes in eating and sleeping patterns or increased behavioral outbursts as they work through their grief.
Children ages 6 to 10 begin to grasp the meaning of death but still need simple, honest explanations of what happened to their loved one and reassurance that nothing they did contributed to their death. Their grief may be exhibited through physical complaints such as headaches or stomachaches.
Teens begin to understand that everyone eventually dies regardless of actions or wishes. Kids in this age group continue to need honesty and an open line of communication to prevent their grief from being kept inside. They may wish to appear independent in their grief, as if they are not in need of adult assistance, but can become disconnected without support.
Answering children's questions about death
At all ages, children will most likely have many questions about the death of their loved one. It's OK if you don't have all of the answers. The most important thing is the open line of communication that you keep with the child. Share your beliefs with them, and encourage them to talk about theirs. Below are some questions that children may ask about death:
- What is death?
- Why do people die?
- Is death forever?
- What happens after death?
- Can I still see him or her?
- Did I do something to cause this?
- Why couldn't a doctor save him or her?
Use these ongoing conversations to gauge how your child is coping with his or her grief. Be sure to make other important adults in your child's life aware of the death. Teachers, coaches, health care providers and religious figures can offer additional support to grieving children in their day-to-day interactions.
Death may have a more profound effect on some children, and the extreme sadness, anxiety or withdrawal may not lessen over time. In cases such as these, you may wish to speak to the child's pediatrician and seek a referral to a psychiatrist, psychologist or counselor who specializes in grief to help the child cope.
Discussing the funeral and determining the child's desired level of involvement
Take time to explain the funeral plans in detail to children. It's often best not to force attendance on a child, but to discuss with them what will occur during the funeral ceremonies and allow them to decide what would make them the most comfortable. Take time to answer any questions a child has before the ceremony, as well as during a private time when the funeral is over. Being prepared for what to expect eases anxiety and builds confidence, and being able to ask questions about what they observed afterward can prevent confusion and misinterpretation. Some questions that children may have about funerals include:
- What will the room look like?
- Who will be there?
- How long will it last?
- How will everyone act?
- What will I have to do?
- What is a casket?
- Is the body inside the casket?
- Why do we bury the body?
- What is cremation?
- Why do some people choose cremation?
- What is an urn?
Remember, even if you feel that you don't have all of the answers to the child's questions, your full attention and interest in the child's questions shows love and support, which are exactly what a child coping with a loss needs.
Locating additional resources
If you find yourself or your child needing additional support, you may find the following resources beneficial:
- Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA offers grief counseling at vet centers across the country at no cost to surviving family members. Visit the Department of Veterans Affairs' website for locations near you.
- Military OneSource. Military OneSource offers adult, child and family non-medical counseling sessions in a face-to-face setting, via telephone and online.
- Sesame Street's "When Families Grieve" Resource Kits. This bilingual DVD resource kit includes a DVD, children's storybook, and a guide for parents and caregivers to help support children coping with the death of a parent, while also providing reassurance that they can learn ways of being there for each other and move forward. The DVD and other resources to support families are available at no charge through Military OneSource at 800-342-9647.
- Print materials. Books such as "Guiding Your Child Through Grief," by Mary Ann and James P. Emswiler, "Thirty-five Ways to Help a Grieving Child" by Dougy Center Staff and "Help Me Say Goodbye: Activities for Helping Kids Cope When a Special Person Dies" by Janis Silverman may offer additional ideas for talking to children about death and helping them cope. Two other books that can be read with children aged 4 to 7 are Judith Viorst's "The Tenth Good Thing About Barney," and Jane B. Zolben's "Pearl's Marigolds for Grandpa."
- Bereavement camps for kids. There may be a bereavement camp near you, for children 6-17 years of age. Many of the camps are free of charge and offer children the chance to connect with peers also dealing with a loss.
As you move through your own grief and help your children through theirs, remember that the best thing you can do is to be available. Keeping communication open and being in tune with their day-to-day actions will help you guide them through this difficult time in the healthiest way possible.