When a Child Suffers Death, What Should You Say, What Do You Do?
Children grieve too. Yet too often we try to protect bereaved children from the pain of death and loss by not including them, struggling with what to say, trying to lessen the pain of death with phrases like, “grandma is sleeping” or “your father has gone on a long trip,” and struggling with how to best help them. “What a teacher once said to me,” explains Dr. Shelley Gilbert “is if a child’s old enough to ask, they’re old enough to hear the answers.”
In her article, 9 Ways to Help Children Understand Death and Grief, Explained by an Expert, Dr. Shelley Gilbert, MBE and founder of Grief Encounter, offers guidance on explaining death of a loved one to a child and ways to help them through their own grief. Here are nine tips she shared. For greater details on the tips, please read the entire article, from Daily Mirror,
1. Don’t avoid the topic for fear of upsetting the child
2. But remember, children take things literally
3. It’s also OK to say, “I don’t really know”
4. And it’s also OK to say “I can’t tell you now, but I will one day”
5. Accept that children are emotionally and psychologically damaged by bereavement
6. Allow as many rituals or ceremonies as they need
7. Make a memory bank
8. Be aware there are secondary losses
9. Bereavement should be a team effort
Children do react to loss so how can a parent or adult help? Recognize that children and young people grieve. Children and adolescents may grieve for a long time, because younger children have shorter attention spans and so they go in and out of their grief. No one “gets over” a death in a hurry, not even children and adolescents. Each person’s reaction to that loss will be unique to that person, a child’s reaction will be different than an adult’s or even other children. A child should be prepared for the death whenever possible. Having information in a way a child or adolescent can understand, will help in coping, because what is expected and planned is easier for anyone to handle. When a loved one dies, it is helpful if the child heard the news from the most supportive and caring person he/she knows. Parents are often the first teachers. How the adult, copes with the loss, will also teach your child. If you talk about the loss and show emotions, you teach your child the same. Try to maintain a secure and stable environment. Children have a need for security and often need answers to questions such as: Did I cause this illness or death to happen? Will this eventually happen to me? Who will take care of me now?
In the chapter, What Do We Know About Grieving Children and Adolescents?, from the book Living with Grief, Children, Adolescents, and Loss, Charles A. Corr writes:
In Lifetimes: A Beautiful Way to Explain Death in Children (Mellonie and Ingpen, 1983)
readers are told that “there is a beginning and an ending for everything that is alive. In
between is living….. So, no matter how long they are, or how short, lifetimes are really all the
same. They have beginnings, and endings, and there is living in between.”
Continue to help children focus on the living, and when needed, follow these resources to help them with the endings.
“Children are great imitators. So give them something great to imitate.” — Anonymous
9 Ways to Help Children Understand Death and Grief, Explained by an Expert, by Zahra Mulroy, Daily Mirror Online in ADEC, The Thanatology Association, Thanatology NewsBrief, December 22, 2016
Living with Grief, Children, Adolescents, and Loss, Edited by Kenneth J. Doka, Hospice Foundation of America, Brunner/Mazel, Taylor & Francis Group, 2000.
Loss, How Children and Teenagers Can Cope with Death and Other Kinds of Loss, Patricia L. Papenbrock, R.N., and Robert F. Voss, M.A., Q.M.R.P.P., Medic Publishing Company, Issaquah, WA, 1990.