As far as possible, as parents you would try not to upset your children, but experts feel that it is important to keep an open dialogue to help them grasp the concept of death.
Dianne McKissock, the author of The Grief of Our Children says, “Death, or impending death, can shatter a child’s illusions about the world – that only old or bad people die, and that parents or parent figures such as teachers or clergy are all powerful and can prevent catastrophes.”
Information Is Key
With modern medicine, people are more likely to be in hospital when they die. And if children don’t have enough information, they’ll make things up in an attempt to understand. This risk is you don’t know what they’re making of it all. So be willing to give information when they ask for it.
Daniel Koh, a psychologist from Insights Mind Centre says, “Ideally conversations about death should start early. For example, when a pet dies, use that as a learning opportunity. Let your kids be involved in preparing their pet for burial and organising a ceremony. They learn through this that the death of a loved one is sad yet survivable.”
“Children age two to four do not understand the finality of death. They see it as abandonment. From four to seven, they may repeatedly ask ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. Between seven and 11, they are capable of understanding the meaning of death, and from 11 onwards they understand it better,” says Daniel.
Do Not Fear The D Word
Contrary to popular belief, children understand clear facts. You need to use the word ‘death’, ‘died’ or ‘dead’. When you avoid these words, the message conveyed is that death is mysterious and fearful. You do not want your children to be afraid.
Do Not Hide Your Feelings
Allowing your child to see you sad is healthy as children need to know it’s normal and acceptable to show sadness and talk about the person who died. Children need to know that if they are worried about how they feel, they can approach you to manage their feelings.
Do Not Shut The Kids Out
Curiosity of your child might be challenging but its normal and you should aim to create a family culture where your child feels free to ask any question.
Before rushing to answer, talk to them first so you are aware of their level of understanding so you do not complicate the situation further with your answers. But always be truthful as evasiveness and dishonesty are the things that cause children distress, says Daniel.
Helping Your Child Cope
Jacki Bracey, a creative therapy specialist at Mandorla Creative Therapy in Sydney, says, “Children process grief and other emotions very differently to adults and often find it difficult to express their emotions verbally.”
“One of the best ways to help them process their grief is by providing opportunities for them to play naturally: this is their language – their way of expressing themselves and making sense of the world. Creative activities that provide a sense of connection to the person who has passed away are particularly important.”
Bracey suggests the following ways to help children:
- Allow them to have an object such as a toy or jewellery that belonged to the person who died.
- Help them create a memory box or scrapbook of photos and other items that remind them of their loved one.
- Give them plenty of opportunities for unstructured play. Don’t be surprised if you see them playing out themes of death or events surrounding the loss. This is a sign they are working through the emotions.
- If you’re concerned about how your child is reacting to death, art and play therapy with a child therapist can help support them and you through the process.
Text: Bauer/ Additional Reporting: Shenielle Aloysis