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Telling a Child About Death

Telling a child of the death of a loved one may be the hardest thing you will ever have to do. There is no right or wrong way to tell a child, but the following are some suggestions which will hopefully make it less painful for both you and the child.

  • When informing a child about the death of a family member or close acquaintance, it is best to tell the child personally and in a comfortable familiar setting.
  • Reach out to the child. You may want to sit close to her/him or hold her/him on your lap. The child may want to hold a favorite animal or toy that gives them a feeling of safety and security.
  • Give a simple, honest explanation about what happened, especially if the death was traumatic. Use clear and concrete words. Do not be afraid to use the words "died", "death" or "dead". Using phrases such as "gone to heaven", "gone to Jesus", "gone away" or "passed away" may be confusing for children, especially younger ones who may think that the deceased is only gone for a while and will be returning.
  • When talking about the circumstances of the death, use age appropriate words to explain a sudden or traumatic death, or if the deceased has died after a long illness. Details are not necessary but if a child has questions, answer them honestly.
  • It is important to include children in religious customs or rituals, or when making arrangements for the funeral, memorial service, wake or Mass. Be sure to explain specifics about the mortuary such as the appearance of the room, that people will be there to pay their respects to the deceased, the flowers, sign-in book, casket, pallbearers, cemetery, and burial ceremony.
  • Reactions during the first year involve adjustments. Children are accustomed to sameness and stability. Children who are grieving will feel sadness but are able to switch back into their "normal" mood during the same day. Some children suffer bouts of depression which is exhibited by sadness mixed with anger directed at him/her or rage towards others. Other behaviors include loss of appetite, trouble sleeping and feeling tired all the time. If these symptoms continue to persist, it may be time to talk to your family doctor.

Your child's first response to death of a loved one may be shock. It may seem that it is too much to comprehend. He or she may feel emotional numbness, or disbelief. His/her world may be shattered and he/she may feel like everything around him/her has completely stopped. Depending on the circumstances of the death, these feelings may be intensified by the death of a parent, grandparent or sibling, or a homicide, suicide, or an accidental or traffic death.

These are all normal reactions to the loss of a loved one. In her book On Death and Dying (MacMilian Co., N.Y., 1969), Elizabeth Kubler-Ross describes the five stages of grief as:

  • Denial - your child may experience a feeling of numbness or shock, or a loss of emotion.
  • Anger - he/she may feel rage, or want to blame him/herself or others for the loss. The child may even feel hostility toward the deceased for dying.
  • Bargaining - your child may feel guilt directed him/herself such as "If only I had been able to do something…"
  • Depression - when your child begins to feel the reality of the loss setting in. This can bring about mood changes or an inability to get back to his/her "norm".
  • Acceptance - hope returns when feelings of depression, sadness begin to decrease.

There is no timeline for how long or how intense each of these stages are, there is no right or wrong way to go through these stages, and no two children go through the stages in the same manner.

The suggestions contained herein will help you to determine how to help your child through this very emotional and traumatic time, as well as understand some of the feelings and emotions your child is experiencing. Of course, since everyone is different, these are only suggestions and by no means set in stone. Some suggestions may be helpful whereas others may not. If you begin to see your child become overwhelmed and not getting back to his/her "norm", it may be time to seek professional assistance through the help of a grief therapist or grief therapy group.

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