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Children are affected by loss and death differently than adults. Children express their grief in a variety of ways and deal with death in many different ways, not necessarily in the same way as adults.
To help children cope with a death, parents, caregivers, teachers and other significant adults in their life need to understand how children think about loss, death and especially what has changed for them. The following list includes helpful suggestions for helping a child cope with death.
- Use concrete terms when explaining death. Say that "______ died."
Avoid terms such as "passed on," "departed," "expired," "lost" or "went to sleep." Children are very concrete in their thinking and may not understand that these terms mean the person (or pet) is dead.
- Be available and ready to listen.
Let them know you will be available to listen. When they are ready to talk--listen.
- Answer questions about death simply and honestly.
First, find out what they know or think they know has happened. Children may be aware of more than you think.
Then only offer the details that they can absorb. Do not give the child more information than is requested.
- Give the child different ways of expressing his or her loss, grief and sadness--verbal, written, creative, musical and physical.
Encourage the child to draw, read, write letters or poetry, sing, tell stories, play with clay, build and other creative means of expression are all helpful ways for a child to express grief.
Let the child go outside to play and be active can be a good way to run off the anxiety they may sense from the adults and feel themselves.
- Be aware that the child many not understand that death is permanent.
Younger children, under five years, do not have a concept of death. If the child keeps asking the same question again and again it is because he or she is trying to understand and make sense of this confusing information and the loss in his or her world.
Be ready to answer the questions again and again, patiently.
- Give the child choices in how to remember (or not) the person (or pet) who has died.
Allow the child to participate in the family rituals if he/she wants to--going to the funeral, memorial and/or cemetery, helping plan or participate in the ceremony, picking flowers, etc.
- Let the child have time to grieve, be upset and talk about their fears.
Children need time to grieve and be upset. Children can be fearful of death. Give them a chance to talk. Listen, validate their feelings and provide reassurance.
- Explain the family's religious or spiritual beliefs about death in simple terms.
The child may not understand the actual meaning. Be aware that even though the child can repeat what was said, he/she may still not understand what death really means.
- Try and keep regular routines. Children can grieve a change in behavior and schedule.
Be aware that a child can mourn the environment and the predictability of a schedule that existed before the loss or death. Keeping regular routines can help.
- Be patient and flexible.
Children grieve intermittently. They may be crying one moment and playing normally the next.
It may take the child a long time to recover from the loss or the death depending on the child, the type of loss and the relationship with the lost person, pet, object etc.
- Stay calm and keep your emotions in check when talking with the child.
Children can have difficulties coping with the death if they see their parents are extremely distraught.
If you are so upset that you don't want to talk, tell the child that "Mommy (or Daddy) doesn't feel like talking now."
In the days after September 11, 2001 as I sat watching the television in disbelief, I told my 18-month-old daughter that "Mommy is not feeling well."
- Be especially loving and supportive. Remember the importance of touch.
Provide physical reassurance with lots of hugging, cuddling and touching. This helps reassure children they are loved.
- Realize that children can experience an Anniversary Response.
Expect that the grief may recur as the child progresses from childhood to adolescence and even into adulthood.
Strong reminders, such as the anniversary of a death, a birthday, or a celebration without the loved one may reawaken grief.
Dyer K. 2004. Helping Children Cope with Death. At: http://www.journeyofhearts.org/jofh/grief/kids_death
Dyer K. Children's Losses. 2003. Presentation for Summerville Participating Parent Nursery School.
© 2006 Kirsti A. Dyer MD, MS, FT. Licensed for use to About.com