One of the most difficult situations adults have to face is telling children that someone they love has died. We worry that they won’t understand, or that they will be emotionally devastated, and we automatically want to protect them from hurt.
In fact, children can handle death very well – often much better than adults do – and, in reality, they may be more hurt, more frightened and more resentful if we exclude them from our pain or try to cover it up.
Children need to grieve the death of a loved one too. They also need to be included in the family’s grief so they don’t feel rejected and left out of a family occasion.
They should be told as soon as possible that a person they care about has died, preferably by a parent or someone very close. They need to be told the truth, not half-truths or fairy stories which will only confuse them and may have adverse emotional effects later in life.
Many people find comfort in religious beliefs and these may help the children if they have been raised within a religious family.
What and how we tell the children depends entirely on their age and level of understanding.
Small children up to about 6 years old
Very young children have no real concept of the finality of death. They see cartoons in which their favourite characters are blown to pieces, crushed, run over or fall off a cliff and then re-surface alive and well for more adventure.
But when it is personal, small children do feel loss and grief and they can still understand sadness. They need to know that it’s alright to feel sad. They may need lots of hugs and kisses and reassurances that everyone else is still there and that it wasn’t their fault that the person died.
We need to be very honest and gentle.
Young children around 6 – 10 years old
Children in this age group react to death in many of the same ways as adults do. They feel shock and anger, they may deny that the death has occurred, they blame other people for the death or feel guilty themselves.
One of the major problems for them is that the don’t understand their own moods, and may regress to thumb sucking or bed wetting. They may become aggressive with playmates, destroy their toys or throw tantrums.
Children’s grief can manifest itself in many different ways, so it is a good idea to let them see that we are grieving too and share our tears with them. Let them know they don’t have to be “brave” and it’s ok to talk about someone who has died.
Children this age can be very curious about the physical aspects of death and funerals and their questions should be answered truthfully so that the fear of the unknown is eliminated. They should be told gently what to expect at the viewing and the funeral and encouraged to attend.
Children 11 years and over
Children from about 11 years and over need to be treated as adults and, like adults, they will have difficulty in understanding and handling their emotions. Many teenagers bottle up their feelings and may appear to be cutting themselves off from the family.
As well as not being afraid to cry in front of them it will help if parents talk openly about the life and death of the deceased. Sharing our grief will help them to share theirs.
It’s a good idea to talk around the dinner table, without the distraction of television, but not forcing them to contribute to the conversation.
It may help to draw out their grief by asking them for suggestions on things like: “When should we arrange this..” or “What do you think about that…” If they don’t want to contribute, don’t worry or force them to answer. Even if they don’t know the answer they will still know that you care and will still feel involved.
If they can’t express themselves, try asking them to give you a big hug so you don’t feel lonely.
Teens may need someone outside of the family to talk to. It is a good idea to let the school know someone close to them has died.
How can we help children with grieving?
Just being there and sharing the grieving with them is probably the most helpful thing we can do. Like adults, children need to express their feelings and they need to share the experience with the rest of the family – not feel they are being left out.
Children of all ages need to be involved and should be encouraged ( but not forced) to attend the viewing of the deceased and to take part in the funeral. Both of these events should be explained in simple terms so the children know what to expect.
Giving young people a special job like carrying a flower or candle, or writing a letter or poem to place in the coffin, will give them a feeling of really belonging. It will also help them understand the finality of death.
If you feel so overwhelmed by your own grief and don’t feel you have the capacity to help a child, this is when a close relative or friend should be asked to help
Source: Australian Funeral Directors Association