Death and dying
Children respond to death in a variety of ways. They may have feelings of sadness, anxiety, anger, guilt, shock and helplessness. They may seem confuse or disbelieving. Because death changes your child's normal routine, he or she may be restless and have trouble sleeping. If your child is school-age, he or she might cry, not feel like eating or withdraw from friends. Many children worry about their own safety and might worry about other family members.
Some younger school-age children may think of death as something reversible or temporary. They might even deny that the person has died at all. In their play and fantasy they may continue to speak about the deceased individual as though he or she were still alive.
Older children are better able to understand death and its causes and are able to deal with it in more adult ways. They may express their feelings about the death by writing about it or in their play or daydreams. At times, their reactions may be quite strong.
The strength of your child's grief also will depend how close he or she felt to the individual who has died. If the deceased was someone to whom your child was not particularly close, he or she may not react at all. However, if your child has lost someone whom he or she cared for deeply, your child will be strongly affected by the death, and it will take him or her longer to feel normal. Children who lose a parent or a sibling often are affected by that death for the rest of their lives.
Following a death, give your child prompt and accurate information, and answer questions in language he or she can understand. If possible, give your child a chance to prepare for the death before it happens. You might say something like "Grandma is very, very sick and may not get better; the doctors think she might die soon." If the death is sudden or violent, your child's grieving process may be more difficult.
After a death, accept your child's response. If he or she is upset, be respectful of that reaction. Each child will react in ways that will depend on his or her own personality, development and maturity and the circumstances of the death.
The sudden death of a parent is very difficult for children of any age. When the surviving caretaker also is having trouble coping with the loss, the family's situation can spiral out of control. Asking for help in coping is not a sign of weakness. Having someone to talk to can help both the grieving parent and child.
Grieving is a process that takes time. Don't expect yourself or your child to feel better all at once and to return to normal quickly. Grieving is a healthy process, and you can help it along by talking to your child about what he or she is feeling, answering his or her questions and not hiding your own grief in order to protect him or her from your pain.
Should my child go to the funeral?
You may feel hesitant about taking your child to a funeral. However, by the time your child reaches school age, he or she should be able to choose whether to attend the funeral. Explain to your child that a funeral is the time when those who knew the person who has died get together to remember that person's life.
Describe what might happen during the day, from the time you arrive and greet people in the chapel, to the burial at the gravesite. If this is the first funeral your child has experienced, explain that people will be sad and crying.
If your child decides to go, make sure that an adult your child trusts is with him or her during the entire funeral. If your child becomes very upset, the adult accompanying him or her should help your child move away from the ceremony. At the funeral your child will see other people grieving, which may make it easier for him to express his or her own feelings.
How do we get back to normal?
After the death of a parent or a sibling, your school-age child may want to stay home from school for a few days. He or she may need to feel close to you and other people who can provide him or her with comfort and support. Soon, you should begin to try to get the family back into a routine. Remind your child that returning to school and his or her friends can make your child feel that life is getting back to routine. Some children, in fact, work extra hard at school as a way of dealing with their grief.
Take time every day to talk with your child about his or her feelings. Holidays or the anniversary of the death may remind your child of the loss.
Consider professional counseling if your child has lingering symptoms, such as:
- Fear of going to sleep.
- Fear of being separated from a parent.
- Refusing to go to school.
- Seeming depressed.
Family therapy may help if you or another family member feels so overwhelmed that you are unable to return to a normal routine. You also can ask your doctor for a referral to a support group.
"Rachel and the Upside Down Heart," by Douglas, Eileen. (For children aged
4 to 8.)
"Lifetimes," by Mellonie, Bryan and Ingpen, Robert. (For children aged 4 to 8.)
"The Next Place," by Hanson, Warren. (For ages 8 and older.)
"Healing Your Grieving Heart for Kids: 100 Practical Ideas," by Wolfelt, Alan, PhD.
"When A Friend Dies," by Gootman, Marilyn and Espeland, Pamela. (For teens.)
"Fire In My Heart, Ice In My Veins," by Traisman, Enid. (Journal for teens
"Straight Talk About Death For Teenagers," by Grollman, Earl A.
"Healing Your Grieving Heart for Teens: 100 Practical Ideas," by Wolfelt,
"Talking With Children About Loss," by Trozzi, Maria. (For adults.)
Web site suggestions
www.compassionatefriends.org (books and resources also available in Spanish).
www.counselingstlouis.net (The Sibling Connection).
www.grievingchild.org (The Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families).
www.specialneedsfamilycenter.org (The Daniel M. Soref Family Resource Center)