Death is an unavoidable part of life and not something that we can protect children from. However we can help children understand the concept of death, their reactions to grief and how as the adults in their lives we can help them with the grieving process.
It is widely accepted that death brings with it a great sense of loss and sadness which when expressed is often referred to as grief or bereavement.
A child’s understanding of death
How a child understands and grasps the concept of death depends on the child’s age and maturity. A child’s understanding and view of death changes as they get older as does their reaction to someone dying. In early childhood from approx. 18 months to 6 years children tend to believe that all thoughts, actions and deeds that occur happen because of them and this is often referred to as ‘magical thinking’. At this stage children think in definite terms so it is not useful to explain death in the context of the person having gone away. This may lead to them believing that the person will return as their stage of development does not allow them to understand that death is permanent and irreversible. At this stage a child can lack the ability to separate fantasy from reality as their world revolves around fairy tale endings and can believe that the deceased will soon return or stop playing dead.
Children at this age may become obsessed with dying, and the practical details of death asking questions like ‘how will they breathe’, ‘where they will get food from’ and ‘how did they get to Heaven’. Due to the magical thinking of children at this age they may think that the deceased person is just living away somewhere else but is still alive in the physical sense. It is common at this stage of development that the bereaved child may wish to go to Heaven to bring the person home or at least persuade them to return to them.
As children get older from around the age of six to twelve years, they develop more concrete thinking and see things in either black/white, good/bad, either/or. At this stage they are developing an understanding that death is irreversible and begin to grasp the finality of death. They start to see that death is universal and that it can happen to other families or old people but also that it could happen to them or their family. This may bring up fears and anxieties about loss and separation.
Children may go through a range of emotions like isolation, guilt, blame, anxiety about their own death, shock and loneliness to mention a few. It is important that children are supported with their grief and find ways to remember the deceased person in a meaningful way, such as a memory box or memory book.
Tips to help when talking to your child about death
- Breaking the news of the death of a loved one to children can be a very difficult task. As parents we want to protect children from sadness. However, children need to be told so that they can understand what is happening and the impact of their loss.
- When telling children about a death it is best that this is done by someone who the child is close to and can offer them reassurances.
- Use simple, everyday language to explain what has happened and try to link it to what the child might have experienced already about loss i.e. loss of a pet or change of school.
- Be clear in the information that you give the child and don’t be afraid to use words like dead and dying. It is important to be careful about using terms like ‘they’ve gone to sleep or gone away’ as the child may get confused about this and expect the person to return or wake up.
- Explain to the child that it is ok to cry and talk about the person who has died and let them know it is ok to talk about the death. Help the child to name other people that they can talk to if they are sad i.e. teacher, friend or another trusted adult.
- Allow time to talk, share feelings and experiences. Encourage the child to talk about their memories and personal experiences of the person who has died.
- Offer the child reassurances and allow for any regression in their behavior as they may act out in anger or disbelief about the death.
Remember that when a death occurs, even if it is expected, it can still be a shock
This article was contributed by Barnardos Family Support Service in Limerick North, a member of Parenting Limerick.