A child’s ability to understand the concept of death depends on his/her ability to deal with abstractions such as the finality and irreversibility of death and on his/her prior learning experiences of death involving other people and/or animals. If children are not given appropriate and adequate information after a loss occurs, they are likely to create their own “information” to fill in the holes of their experience. For example, if a knowing adult does not tell the child about the cause of death he/she may rationalize the death by constructing an elaborate scenario of why the person died. Unfortunately, a child’s fantasy can lead to unrealistic fears about death and disease. An age-appropriate explanation can help children dispel any fantasies they have created.
In the same vein, caring adults should tell affected children about the impending death of someone they love. Sometimes parents think they are “protecting” their children by withholding information about the parent’s own or someone else’s impending death. However, children are highly observant and can tell when something is happening. Not telling them what is going on can make them feel anxious, unimportant, and in the worst case, responsible for what is happening to the dying person.
There are normally two fears that children experience after the death of a love one, especially a parent: “Who will take care of me?” and “Will someone else die?” The first fear is the basic, primitive anxiety that we cannot survive without our parents. This fear occasionally arises even in adult children after the death of one or both parents. There are a couple of ways to help children handle these fears. The first is to give the child adequate information about who will take care of him/her in the event something happens to the parent(s). The second is to reassure the child about the longevity of the parent(s).
Another, and often overlooked, way of providing security for children is to maintain, as much as possible, the same routines and level of discipline as before the death. Parents have a tendency to ease up on discipline, especially after a parental death, because the child is already going through so much. However, research by J.M. Strength has shown that appropriate discipline can go a long way in reassuring children and reducing anxiety. Children inwardly desire limits and enforcing pre-existing ones at such a difficult time can make them feel cared for and more secure.
Reassurance is a need that children often face after a loss. A child’s understanding of the power of feelings are not well established when they are young. They realize that strong feelings can hurt someone, and from that, they might construe that their feelings about someone contributed to that person’s death. Again, adequate information can help children understand that their negative feelings or shortcomings did not cause the loss.
Just as adults need someone to listen to their concerns and not minimize them, children need the same for their fears, fantasies, and questions. Some questions children ask may seem strange and make adults feel uncomfortable (e.g., “How does Grandpa eat now that he is in the ground?”), but for the child they are real concerns and should not be trivialized. They ask these questions because they do not understand about death, so when they do ask, the best response is a simple, age-specific explanation using basic facts, followed by asking the child to verify what he/she understood the answer to be.
Coupled with the need for careful listening, children, just like adults, need to have their feelings validated and respected. In order not to feel helpless, adults sometimes try to tell children how they should feel. However, children need to be able to express their thoughts and feelings in their own particular way and time. What they are experiencing is real to them and adults need to acknowledge that.
When someone close to a child, such as a parent, dies, the child can experience feelings that are so strong that they are too scary to express directly. The most common feelings that arise for bereaved children are sadness, anger, anxiety, and guilt. Adults may think they can protect bereaved children from these feelings; however, that is an impossible goal to achieve. A more constructive and helpful approach is for the adults to help the child express their feelings in a safe way. Activities regarded as play can help provide children the outlet they need to express themselves. For example, drawing or sculpting something out of clay can be a good way for children to deal with anger, while writing can be effective for feelings of regrets and guilt.
Just like adults, children need to feel important and included in what happens in the family both before and after the death. A very effective way of doing this is to involve them in the funeral planning and in the funeral itself. This point in our discussion is an excellent time for me to address the frequent question of whether or not a child should attend a funeral. A good rule of thumb is that around the age of six a child has normally developed to the point of being able to decide for him/herself if he/she wants to go to the funeral. However, when a child is asked to make the decision it should be an informed decision. The child needs to be prepared for what he/she will see and hear – adults crying, sadness, the body in the casket, etc. If it is possible, it can be very helpful for the child to go through a “dress rehearsal” of the proceedings. Visiting the location for the funeral, a private viewing of the open casket, reviewing the order of the service, etc. can be very beneficial for preparing the child for what he/she will be encountering.
Most often children will want to go to the funeral, though there may be instances when they will not. In those cases, well-meaning adults should respect their decision and not force them to attend. Similarly, adults should not force children to do anything they do not want to do such as touching or kissing the body. These forced actions can be traumatic for the child and affect them for years to come. A funeral can be an important “teachable moment” for a child so adults should treat it and the child with respect and honor.
Another way children can be included in the dying and funeral experience is for adults to ask them if they would like to have something buried with the person. They may want to draw a picture, write a poem or story, select certain objects, etc. Having the opportunity to do this seems to help children with their mourning.
An important fact for adults to remember about grieving children is that a bereaved child is still a child. Bereaved children have various concerns that might seem inappropriate to adults but are age appropriate for the child. For example, adults might be upset that a child is concerned about having to attend school on the day of the funeral, but for the child it is an age appropriate concern. Children need to be able to maintain their age appropriate interests and activities.
This need is simple and obvious – children learn how to mourn by observing how adults mourn. Children need to be with adults who can model appropriate mourning: remembering the deceased, discussing those memories (both good and bad), and acknowledging and sharing the sadness everyone feels about the loss.
Children do not mourn the loss of a loved one for some period of time and then find resolution. Instead, they have to re-think and re-establish their relationship to that person at various stages of development throughout the rest of their lives. For example, the meaning of a loss of a parent for an 8-year old is different from when that child later becomes an adolescent and different still when that child becomes a young adult. Thus, children need to be able to remember and memorialize their loss not only right after the death, but also as they grow older. Talking about the deceased, reviewing pictures and his/her personal items, and creating rituals (that the child helped to create!) to memorialize him/her are ways the child can keep the memory of the deceased alive and find new meaning for the loss at each stage of development.