Helping Bereaved Children
Death, the one certainty in all of life, is also life's greatest uncertainty. When talking about death, there are no easy answers, especially with children. Most people are unsure of how and what to tell their children, and what the child's reaction and behavior will be.
Children experience loss almost on a daily basis. Through divorce, loss of friends, and the death of a pet, children learn to grieve. The following information assists helping a child deal with the death of someone they love; however, the information is helpful when dealing with any life loss. And, while it is not a complete guide, a list of recommended readings is provided on the subject of children and the grief process.
Children & Death
"It is precisely because young children don't understand what death is all about that they especially need us to talk about it with them" (Rogers & Sharapan, 1979).
Death has become somewhat of a taboo subject in our society and there is a tendency to not talk about it. Often, because we know the pain and sadness, we want to protect our children, sometimes to the point that we don't tell them about a death. A death disrupts the family's emotional life and all family members are affected. Children sense that something is wrong and they will experience grief one way or another. So, it is important that we communicate with our children.
How we talk with a child about death depends on many things--their age, personality, and relationship with the person who has died. However, it is essential that we provide them with simple and direct information and be open to their questions. It is important that we give them answers to build on later, not ones that will have to be unlearned. Children will find their own fantasy explanations for unanswered questions, with the fantasies often being more frightening than the reality. Children take what we say literally, so it is best to avoid euphemisms such as passed on, passed away, went to sleep, etc.
When explaining death, do so on a level they can understand. Young children can take in only limited amounts of information, so the explanation should be brief and simple. The older the child, the more information they can accept and understand.
Most children are curious about the physical aspects of death, and describing the death concretely lessens the confusion. For example, talk about the absence of familiar life functions--when someone dies their heart doesn't beat, they don't breathe, talk, eat or feel. Up until about nine years of age, it is difficult for them to grasp the finality of death. They may repeatedly ask you the same questions before the answers become reality to them.
Talking with children is difficult because we don't have all of the answers, and that's okay. There isn't always an answer for every question. But, if we can be as open, honest and comfortable with our feelings as possible, we make it easier for children to talk about death and ask questions. This is important because it lets us know what they need and how we can help.
How Children Grieve
"Any child old enough to love is old enough to grieve" (Wolfelt, 1996).
Everyone, including children, has their own unique grief experience. Like adults, children experience shock, sadness, fear, and guilt. It is important that we not tell children what they should or should not think or feel. Again, just like adults, children feel helpless and uncertain about what has happened and what lies ahead.
Children must often accept their grief in doses (Wolfelt 1996). They find it difficult to handle prolonged exposure to grieving. One minute they may ask you a specific question regarding the death, and the next minute return to the game they were playing. Because a child's capacity to feel develops long before their capacity to verbalize feelings, their concerns and fears may not come out in direct questions but rather through their play.
Children will display a wide range of behavior and, because of social expectations and what they are taught, boys and girls express feelings differently. Many children regress emotionally and developmentally with tantrums, aggressive behavior or withdrawal. Parents often become alarmed as their child doesn't appear to be grieving because they continue to laugh and play. Sometimes, like adults, children may want to be alone, and we must respect their privacy. Often, children turn their anger and sadness inward and become depressed and withdrawn.
Because the grief experience is an individual one, there is no right way to grieve. We must be patient and accepting of our children throughout this ongoing process. No matter what their behavior, a loving and supportive environment must be provided.
Children & Funerals
"A funeral is a time of sadness, a time to honor the person who died, a time to help comfort and support each other and a time to affirm that life goes on" (Wolfelt, 1996).
As part of the healing process, children should be encouraged to attend the funeral. However, they should never be forced or made to feel guilty if they choose not to attend. In most cases, they will attend if they are prepared for what to expect and given support. It is helpful to explain to the child why we have funerals. They can usually embrace that it is a time for good-bye. This may also be a good time to explain the spiritual significance according to your personal religious beliefs.
If a child attends a funeral, an explanation of what will happen before, during, and after the ceremony is important. Children should also be made aware that they will see people expressing a wide range of emotions in expressing their feelings. If appropriate, children can also be encouraged to participate in the funeral process. Your funeral director can provide helpful information and answers to questions about children and funerals.
Needs of a Grieving Child
- Open, honest information regarding the death
- Saying good-bye to the deceased
- Participation in the funeral ritual, if they choose
- Reassurance that basic needs will be met
- Consistency and routine in day-to-day living
- An ongoing, loving and supportive environment where feelings and thoughts can be expressed
"Bereaved children can and do grow through grief" (Wolfelt, 1996).
Children's grief is as powerful and deep as adult grief. Bereaved children, too, must explore how they go on with their lives as they are forever changed by the death of a loved one. We have the opportunity to help children in their healing and growth. We must provide them a safe, loving and supportive environment where they can return when they need to talk and ask questions.
If you are open to them, your children will be your best teachers and let you know what they need.
Buscaglia, Leo. The Fall of Freddie the Leaf. Thorofare, NJ: Charles B. Slack Co., 1982.
Compassionate Friends: Caring for Surviving Children...When a Child Dies. The Compassionate Friends, 1992 (information).
Grollman, Earl A. (Ed.): Explaining Death to Children. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1967.
Grollman, Earl A. Talking About Death. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1971.
Nelson, William D. (Ph.D.): Helping Children Understand Death (information).
Rogers, Fred & Sharapan, Hedda: Talking with Young Children about Death. Family Communications, Inc., 1979 (information).
Thomas, Jane. Saying Good-bye to Grandma. New York, NY: Clarion Books, 1988.
Wolfelt, Alan D. Healing the Bereaved Child: Grief Gardening, Growth Through Grief and Other Touchstones for Caregivers. Fort Collins, CO: Companion Press, 1996.