Death is an inevitable part of life, and yet it has always been a difficult subject to discuss and an even more difficult event to face. As adults we often struggle with coming to terms with the death of a loved one and the grieving process. While we grapple with our grief we often forget about the smallest mourners among us—the children. At times we exclude them from the process in our attempts to shield them from what we deem to be a situation that they cannot handle. It’s important to understand, however, that children do grieve and that they should be allowed to go through the grief process in their own way. There are many adults who continue to be bitter and angry because as children their parents kept the knowledge of the death of a loved one from them or shielded them completely from the event, and thus deprived them of the opportunity to “say goodbye” and to grieve.
In my profession as a counselor I have worked with many parents as they struggled with the ways in which to include their children in the grief process. Many had already decided not to tell the child of the death and to exclude the child from the funeral. I also worked with the children who were grieving, and it was always more difficult for them to work through their grief if they had been excluded from the process by their parents and other adults.
It’s important to understand childhood grief and how to appropriately approach the subject of death and dying with children. Below are some important things to know as you help your child to grieve appropriately.
1Children May Not Always Grieve in the Same Way Adults Do.
While children may display certain characteristics that we as adults recognize as grief, they may exhibit some behaviors that we do not identify as part of the grieving process. Some of these unique childhood grief characteristics include (1) reverting to behavior associated with a child of a younger age, (2) becoming withdrawn, (3) becoming hyperactive, (4) engaging in anger, fighting, defiance, and other acting-out behaviors, and (5) a decrease in the level of performance in school. The type of behaviors displayed by the child also depends on the child’s age and thus their understanding of death and dying.
2Encourage Children to Talk and Share Their Feelings.
The subject of death is often an uncomfortable one for most adults. We may not know how to approach the subject with our children and may cope by convincing ourselves that by avoiding it, it will simply go away with the passage of time. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. By encouraging children to talk about their feelings, you allow them the freedom to grieve appropriately and to resolve any feelings and misconceptions that could hinder their development and grief recovery. Ask your child open-ended questions, such as “When do you miss Grandpa the most?” so you can get a clear understanding of their thoughts and encourage further dialogue. Try to keep the conversation age-appropriate, while at the same time being open and honest with your child. There are a number of books written for children on the subject of death. Find one that corresponds with your values and beliefs and use it as a tool to facilitate conversation with your child.
3Be Aware of Common Thoughts and Feelings of Grieving Children.
Encouraging your child to share their thoughts about the death of a loved one might uncover some common thoughts and feelings that children have about death. Children often become fearful that others might die, and they will most likely express this. Young children also engage in what is known as “magical thinking” in their attempt to understand the death. In other words, they blame themselves for the death because of something—usually hurtful—that they might have said, thought, or done concerning the individual who died. It can be as simple as one little girl whom I counseled who believed that because she did not deliver the usual note to her grandmother that she wrote for her daily at school, it somehow caused her grandmother’s death. She believed this even though her grandmother died during the school day, and therefore before the time she usually delivered the note. Children must be reassured that even though everyone will die at some time, others are unlikely to die very soon, and that they are not responsible for the death of a person simply by saying or thinking something about the person.
4Be Mindful of Religious Jargon When Talking to Children About Death.
As Christians we will undoubtedly use religious themes when talking to our children about death. It’s important that they understand the Christian perspective of death; however, we must be careful in the words we use to explain it. As a counselor I have encountered several children who were conflicted because they were told that their loved one was in heaven. Some of these children became suicidal because they wished to join their loved one(s) in heaven. As Adventists we often like to say that the person is asleep. This can be confusing for the child as well. A young child might become fearful of going to sleep or of seeing other family members sleep because they now see sleep as death. Using the word “lost” is also confusing to children, because they may rationalize that the person can be found. It’s best to simply explain that the person has died and that means that they will not be able to see them, play with them, or talk with them anymore. You may further explain that the person is no longer able to breathe, see, talk, hear, think, and so forth, as can a person who is alive. It’s again important to encourage questions in this discussion.
5Do Not Force Your Child to Attend Funerals and Other Memorial Services.
Taking time to explain the formalities of death, such as funeral home viewings, funerals, and memorial services, is helpful in preparing your child for what to expect and removing the shroud of mystery that often surrounds these rituals in the mind of the child. The child should also be invited to participate in the funeral in some way. However, if after you prepare the child they refuse to attend or participate, they should not be forced. The parent can encourage the child to say goodbye in some other way, such as writing a poem or drawing a picture that can be shared at the funeral or placed in the casket with the loved one. A flower chosen by the child for the deceased or a special meal at home can also be ways for the child to say goodbye.
6Inform Your Child’s School of the Death
Many parents often fail to inform teachers or administrators at their child’s school or day care about the death of a loved one. Children spend most of their day in school, and many of their grief-related behaviors will surface there. If the school personnel are unaware of the recent death, they will not be able to interpret and understand your child’s sudden change in behavior appropriately. Oftentimes the consequences for the behavior instituted by the school would be different if they were aware of the child’s loss. The staff at the school can be sensitive to your child’s needs and can be an excellent resource in helping your child to grieve appropriately.
7Help Your Child Find Ways of Remembering the Person Who Has Died.
Helping your child find meaningful ways to remember the person who has died can also be beneficial to their grieving process. Younger children can enjoy drawing and coloring pictures of remembrance, while it might be comforting for older children to write entries in a journal. Planting a tree or flowers in honor of the person, collecting mementos of the person and placing them in a memory box, sharing funny stories about the person, acknowledging birthdays and other significant dates in the deceased person’s life, writing stories and poems about the deceased, and visiting the grave site are also ways that your child can remember the deceased loved one.
Keep this information in mind as you help your child to grieve, and help them to take their confusion and sorrow to Jesus. This will aid them in dealing with the loss of a loved one in an appropriate way and make a very difficult time a little less challenging for the entire family.
Karen Birkett Green, L.M.S.W., is a counselor, freelance writer, and seminar presenter living in Charlotte, North Carolina. This article was published May 19, 2011.