Children and Death
We don’t like to connect the words, but children experience death and loss too. How we choose to represent death and dying to our children will have far reaching impact on their experience of life and living, as they pass their learned association of death by example down to their own children and grandchildren. Our grief with the death of a loved one is a powerful tool of expression, an expression our children will never forget. How can you make a positive difference when faced with children and death?
We best teach our children through what we do and not through what we say. If we are telling our children that death is a natural part of life yet neglect to explain why everyone is upset and crying, what have we taught our children about death? Our own honesty and straightforwardness is an integral part of a child’s positive grief and mourning experience. How honest are we with ourselves? What fears do we have, and do we want to pass those fears onto our children? How can grieving parents help children grieve in a healthy way?
Some important guidelines for coping with children and death are:
Emotional investment In other words, who died? Was it a parent, a sibling, best friend, favorite playmate or pet? The importance of emotional investment cannot be stressed enough. The degree of a child’s mourning and loss will be directly related to the child’s emotional investment in the deceased. Remember, the relationship your child shared with a beloved pet can sometimes be greater than an older sibling. Their mourning will reflect that. Keep in mind the child’s own special relationship with the deceased, as well as the future loss that child may experience.
Age appropriate children of different ages see death in different ways. A five year old will be most influenced by the reactions of their primary caretakers, while the teen-ager will be faced with reactions of his peer group as well. If you have more than one child, it’s important to speak with each child individually in an age appropriate way, because though they may have shared a relationship with the person who died, each of those relationships are unique to your child. Be aware of future loss too. For example, the death of a sibling will affect future family celebrations that sibling will not attend weddings and graduations. Younger children tend to view their world as happening right now, rarely understanding that the impact of a death in the family will have far reaching consequences. It can be helpful to gently point out to the younger child that death means his beloved parent/sibling/friend will not be a physical part of their future. Older children usually appreciate future loss, though dealing with peers can often make them feel different, embarrassed and ashamed. All of these feelings are valid. After all, can’t you remember a bad hair day in high school? Imagine what a death can feel like to the teenage child!
Continued support As a child grows older, their understanding of life and death also grows, and with this can come more questions about death. Parents and care professionals can help a child with their grief by remaining honest and open to continued discussion. Helping a child to connect with another grieving child can be extremely effective, especially for teenagers. Support groups are old and trusted venues for grief management. Let your child know that grief lasts forever, and explain that mourning is an expression of our grief. If your own grief is too overwhelming, make sure you get help for the children. There is nothing wrong with being overwhelmed with your grief – as long as you make sure your children get the help they need too.
As parents, care givers, teachers and friends, we have a huge responsibility when faced with helping children to cope with death. Our reactions and responses to death and grief will define how our beloved children experience death not only now, but in the future. Hopefully, our children will outlive us, and one day, they will be responsible for burying us. When we have prior experience with death, we have an amazing opportunity to teach our children how to mourn long before they mourn for us. When we die, we can’t be there for our children as they weep beside our grave, but what we have taught them about death and dying reaches out beyond our grave.
In my house, we have a saying. Everybody dies. It is not meant to be heartless. It is simply a fact. However, how you live with death is all up to you. Make sure the message you are giving is one you believe in, one you want your children to share, and one you are proud to own.