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Talking to Children About Death

How to help them understand and cope with losing a loved one.

Death is a complex, incomprehensible topic. After the death of a loved one, people are often left with many unanswered questions: Why does this have to happen? What does it feel like to die? What happens to the body after death? Is there an afterlife? Although adults have general knowledge about death and the process that follows, they still do not have a full understanding. For children, it’s even more difficult to comprehend the topic when they don’t know what it means to die. They are aware of the concept because of its prevalence in television and movies, but they may not be able to translate that awareness to understanding in real life. Here you will find some ways to help explain and expose your child to the topic, as well as ways to help your child cope with the loss of a loved one.

In an article on Child Mind Institute written by Rachel Ehmke, she expresses the importance of helping your child feel safe during this process. It is necessary to encourage them to express their feelings in order to cultivate a healthy way of coping with loss. Although it may be difficult, don’t be afraid to express your own emotions, too. This may allow them to feel more comfortable about opening up. When first talking to a child and telling them the news, parents and guardians must be direct. It is very common for people to describe death as “going to sleep”; however, Ehmke warns about using this description so that they do not fear going to sleep. Kids are very literal. You don’t want to use words that will make them fear simple, everyday activities such as bedtime. Parents should be aware of their child’s developmental stage because this will play a role in their understanding.

Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist, stated, “Children understand that death is bad, and they don’t like the separation, but the concept of ‘forever’ is just not present.” Older children will have a better understanding that death is a permanent concept, but they still may be unclear about many aspects of the issue. Rather than trying to endlessly explain and make the m understand the concept, try to be open and willing to let the child ask questions. Answering the child’s questions to the best of your ability can be more beneficial than trying to explain death, according to Ehmke. One specifically difficult factor to understand about death is the afterlife. Now is the best time to share religious beliefs and views about the afterlife with your child. If you aren’t religious, the child can still be comforted with the idea that the deceased is always with them in their hearts.

Children experience a more sporadic grieving process compared to that of an adult. The author states, “After losing a loved one, a child may go from crying one minute to playing the next. His changeable moods do not mean that he isn’t sad or that he has finished grieving; children cope different than adults, and playing can be a defense mechanism to prevent a child from becoming overwhelmed.” Ehmke notes that due to the stress of the situation, younger children may regress back to bed wetting or baby talk. As stated earlier, one of the most important steps is to make your child feel comfortable enough to express their emotions and open up the dialogue about death. The topic may be uncomfortable, but ensure the child or children that this is a normal feeling and there is nothing to be afraid of when talking about their emotions surrounding death. Some helpful tools in starting the discussion conversation may be books, drawing, looking at photo albums, telling stories, or building a scrapbook, according to Ehmke. These normal tasks might help the child to feel more comfortable.

In the article “Scared of death? Watch Disney movies! Professor who specializes in our fear of mortality said the cartoons perfectly prepare us for the end,” by Mia De Graff, the article discusses the study of Professor Tenzek from the University at Buffalo. Tenzek studied 57 films and analyzed them using psychological principles and theories. The article states, “Professor Tenzek and co-author Prof. Bonnie Nickels, a visiting lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology, New York, analyzed 57 Disney and Pixar movies in which 71 character deaths occurred. Watching Disney and Pixar movies with children can be the perfect way to open up the conversation about death, even before a death occurs. Some of the films mentioned and recommended are Bambi, Frozen, The Lion King, Big Hero 6, and Inside Out. Professor Tenzek determined that watching Disney movies was an effective therapy method for both children and adults in coping with death, according to De Graff.

When it comes to the topic of the funeral, many parents may be torn on the right choice for their child. Should they take the child to the services, or leave them at home? If the child is old enough, the decision can be made amongst the parents and child. Although funerals provide a sense of closure, some children may not be able to handle this experience. A child should not be forced into attending the services. If the decision is made for the child to go to the funeral, its necessary to prepare them for what the experience will entail, according to Ehmke. She states, “Explain that funerals are very sad occasions, and some people will probably be crying. If there will be a casket, you should prepare him for that, too.” An article published on Kid’s Health also weighs in on the appropriate ways to prepare your child for what is to come. Breaking it down into three pieces may make it easier for the child to comprehend: the funeral, the burial (or cremation), and the gathering after the services. The article also encourages giving children a role in the funeral, such as reading a poem or talking about their favorite memory of that person.

Always reassure your child that you will be there for them if they need to talk, cry, ask questions, or hold your hand.

Many times the death of a loved one will cause shifts within the family. If the changes will affect the child, be sure to make them aware of these changes and explain why they are happening. Some changes may include a different picking them up from school than normal, or staying in the care of someone else other than their parents for a few days; however, it’s important to stick to as much of a routine as possible. After the funeral, don’t act like the person never existed. Share memories with your child and encourage them to remember the loved one, such as through drawing pictures, according to Kid’s Health. Parents should monitor their child’s behavior and try to spend time with them doing activities to help them feel better and temporarily take their mind off of the subject. If necessary, it never hurts to consult a doctor or seek a counselor. While helping your child cope with loss, do not forget to be mindful of your own emotions. The only way to be a strong support system is to take care of yourself.

Sources:

Ehmke, Rachel. “Helping Children Deal With Grief.” Child Mind Institute 

https://childmind.org/article/helping-children-deal-grief/

De Graff, Mia. “Scared of Death? Watch Disney movies! Professor who specializes in our fear of mortality said the cartoons perfectly prepare us for the end.” DailyMail.com. 19 October 2017.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-4997212/Scared-death-Watch-Disney-movies.html#ixzz4w2G2hjWh

“Helping Your Child Deal With Death.” Edited by D'Arcy Lyness, KidsHealth, The  Nemours Foundation, Sept. 2016

kidshealth.org/en/parents/death.html.

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