Should the tragic loss of a loved one become a reality, here are some thoughts to keep in mind. Studies show that children go through a series of stages in their understanding of death. Young children perceive death as temporary. While the finality of death is not fully understood, a child may realize that death means separation, and separation (especially from parents, with a loss of care) can be frightening. Preschool children usually see death as reversible, temporary and impersonal. Watching cartoon characters on television miraculously rise up whole again after having been crushed or blown apart tends to reinforce this notion. Long before we realize it, children become aware of death. They see dead birds, insects and animals. They see death on television and in an infinite variety of computer games, etc. They hear about it in fairy tales and act it out in their play. Death is a part of life; and children, at some level, are aware of it. They don’t necessarily understand it, though. Encourage communication. Listen thoroughly. Be prepared to possibly have to repeat your explanation over and over. It is a very vague and elusive concept for a young child to grasp.
Explain the basic facts of death in brief and simple terms. When a person dies they no longer eat, sleep, talk, walk; they do not return and their body is buried. Depending on your beliefs, this would be an appropriate time to address the spirit or other religious beliefs in brief and simple terms.
The following are some ways to NOT explain death:
• Children may hear adults refer to putting the dog to sleep? As a result, children may become afraid to go to bed, afraid they won’t wake up, or that you won’t wake up.
• If we refer to death as went away, children may fear any separation from Mom or Dad, etc. Maybe they won’t come back. Grandma never came back after she went away?
• Telling children that sickness was the cause of death could be a problem too. Their minor ailments may begin to cause them unnecessary concern.
• And we can’t even say Grandma died because she was old. Parents are old to a child. A big brother may seem old. Does that mean they are subject to imminent death? Also, children eventually may learn of a young person who died. This could lead to confusion or distrust.
• Another confusing situation could be when we say Grandpa is happy now - and then we are grieving. Why the grieving if Grandpa is so happy? The truth is that it was time for Grandpa to die, and we are so sad because we miss him. We can keep the memories of Grandpa alive in our heart. That might help us not miss him so much.
Children may express their feelings in many different ways. Studies have shown that when children experience the death of a close relative, they often feel guilty. Children have difficulty understanding cause-and-effect relationships. They may think that in some way they caused the death. Reassure that the child has always been, and always will be loved; and again Mommy died when it was time for Mommy to die. You had nothing to do with that.
Children may express anger toward the dead person, especially if that person was a caregiver. Anger is part of grief. The child needs to be reassured that they will be cared for. Children also mourn. Mourning heals. Being open with our sorrow and fears shows children that it is all right to cry and to be sad. Children may show little immediate grief because they do not have the emotional maturity to work through a deeply felt loss. They may express their sadness off and on over a long period of time. Play (dolls puppets, games, etc.) is an excellent mechanism to help work out feelings.
It is difficult for me to write on this subject, but my hope is that this information may afford you a small amount of comfort someday.
If, after reading this article, you are still left with specific question, you are welcome to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.