Helping Children Cope
The importance of talking to children
Many people avoid discussing death with children in an attempt to “protect” them. Yet in our experience, children are often far more aware of death than we believe, and by talking about it we remove fear and misapprehension. Children, like all people, can cope with what they know better than with what they do not know.
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Different ages, shifting perceptions
Hospicenet.org, a resource for patients and families, identifies a few key developmental thresholds to understanding how children relate to the idea and the reality of death.
- Infants up to 2 years old. Babies and toddlers may sense a loss and their parents’ grief. In response, they may change their eating, sleeping, or toilet habits.
- Preschoolers. Children up to age 4 may think of death as a temporary condition. Animated characters may reinforce this perception.
- Ages 5-9. In this age range, there is a growing understanding that death is final. There is also a growing awareness that all living things die. Symbols of death – skeletons, monsters – may become the source of nightmares.
- Ages 9-12. In this age range, children begin to realize that they, too, will one day die. Some kids seek answers and ask questions about the meaning of life.
- Teenagers. Teenagers can be especially prone to questioning the meaning of life, and sometimes take foolish risks to confront death and assert control.
Despite these guidelines, it’s important to remember that children develop at their own rate and in their own way. Kids who experience permanent loss early in life may have a different grasp of death.
- Avoid telling children that someone “went away,” or has “gone to sleep.” This can raise false expectations and fears.
- Avoid telling children that death only happens to “old people.”
- Be honest about emotions. If there are tears associated with death and dying, explain it truthfully: “I’m crying because I’m sad that Aunt Molly died.”
- Don’t fear silence. Children may withdraw to consider and process what they’ve learned. It’s okay to let them think and reflect alone if they know you’re there to help.
- Simplicity is valuable. In a book entitled “Explaining Death to Children,” a contributing author suggests that death can be explained by what does not happen: People don’t breathe, eat, or talk; dogs don’t bark or run; plants don’t grow or bloom.”
- Clarify what it means to be “sick.” If you explain to a young child that someone has died from illness, it’s advisable to explain that only very serious illnesses can cause death, and that many people get sick but most get well again.
- Allow all emotions to surface. Children – like adults – can feel anger, shame, guilt, and other difficult feelings because of their loss. It’s best to meet all such feelings with openness, and remember that anger is part of grief.
Visits to the patient
If a child has played an important role in the life of a dying person, and is old enough to understand the essence of the situation, visits can be a very good idea, providing that both the child and the dying person wish it.
As hospicenet.org reports, “under the right circumstances, contact with the dying can be useful to a youngster. It may diminish the mystery of death and help her develop more realistic ways of coping. It can open avenues of communication, reducing the loneliness often felt by both the living and the dying. The opportunity to bring a moment of happiness to a dying individual might help a child feel useful and less helpless.” Other key guidelines include:
- Prepare the child for what they will see and hear.
- Remind children that most hospital patients get well.
- Telephone calls are sometimes a good substitute.
- Pressuring or forcing contact is not a good idea.
Children and funerals
Ceremonies for collective grieving can be powerful experiences. Again, the decision for a child to attend must be based on the child’s understanding level, and the desire to be there. Other considerations include:
- Preparing the child by telling him or her that people will be sad and may be crying.
- Sharing information on exactly what will happen before, during, and after the service.
- Allowing the child to add their voice and questions to the decision- making process.