If close family members include children, then make an effort to include them in as honest manner as possible. Children will gain benefit from clear ‘age-appropriate’ information about the person’s condition, as well as any changes they may perceive in your own behaviour.
It’s important to understand your own feelings as much as possible before you talk to children. Once you’ve spent some time coming to terms with your own fear, anger and sadness, you will be better equipped to help those who depend on you. You need to be realistic as well, as you can’t expect to be in total control of every emotion you are experiencing.
Children depend on their parents to provide security and love, and to make sense of life and their place in it. Parents help them understand the world around them and their place in it. The pain of losing someone close to them can be worse if they’re not informed beforehand, and they may feel confused, hurt, and angry. Some other reactions can be that a child feels that they’re not an important part of the family, that death is so frightening that they won’t be able to cope with it, or tragically that they weren’t told because it’s their fault that their parent died. Not preparing children for the impending death of a loved one, abandons them to make sense out of this crisis on their own.
It is best to for children to be told the truth in small amounts over several days or even weeks. They can then slowly adjust to what they can understand, while still going about their everday lives.
Most parents find it very difficult to talk to their child about death, and would rather avoid or at least postpone it for as long as possible. If you wait for the ‘right time’, you run the risk of it not happening at all.
It helps to get an idea of how your child is interpreting the things that are happening around them. Often children sense that things are becoming more serious just by the way the family is acting, or by the changes in normal family activities. A good way to start a conversation is to ask open-ended questions like, “Have you noticed the changes that have been happening?” or “Are you worried about what might happen?”. Most children sense that things are not normal, but they’re often too frightened to talk about what they fear the most. You should not assume that you know what a child is thinking, as their thoughts are not necessarily logical. You must ask questions, and help the child to express as much as possible about their own thoughts.
It’s natural to want to soften your words when speaking with a child, but it is important to use the correct words like “die” and “death”, rather than “pass on,” “go away,” “go home,” “go to sleep,” or other terms that make death sound more palitable. Children often don’t understand what these nicer-sounding words really mean and may not fully understand what you’re trying so hard to say. A child’s understanding is based on what they can experience for themselves, so death should be explained in terms they can better understand and reassures them.
- Death means that they will no longer see the person, and they will no longer be physically there in their life.
- They won’t be able to see them, but they’ll still have memories of them forever.
- Be sure to explain that when a person dies, they don’t feel anymore; the heart doesn’t beat anymore; the person doesn’t breathe.
- Explain the finality of death by saying that death is not like a trip – you don’t come back from being dead. Also, make it clear that death is not like sleeping.
- Children may benefit from expressing their feelings by drawing pictures, using puppets and listening to stories that explain events in terms that they can understand.
Depending on their age and many other factors, it is normal for some children to not comprehend that a loved one is dying. If a child doesn’t want to believe what you’ve told them, they may ask the same questions over and over again, as if your conversation had never happened. They do this in the hope that the answer will be different the next time, and that what they’ve been told isn’t true. Give the child time to absorb what you have discussed. Be sure to check to find out what your child actually understood, and be prepared that you may have to repeat this discussion many times for them to fully understand.
Research has shown that children can and do cope with the loss of important relationships in healthy ways, if they’re loved and supported by those close to them.