How to Talk to Children About the Death of a Loved One

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Children become aware of death at an early age through such experiences as seeing dead animals by the roadside and watching enactments of death on television and in films. Their understanding of death depends of their ages and backgrounds.

As explained by the Clinical Center of the National Institute of Health, preschool children tend to picture death as temporary and reversible, children between five and nine accept the concept of death but personify it in impersonal caricatures, while from the ages of nine or 10 on through adolescence children get a better grasp on the reality of death and its implications. When a loved one dies, it is important to communicate with your child in a way that helps them cope with the loss.

Be Honest and Direct

Though you should speak with your child in an age-appropriate manner, it is important to be honest and direct. Do not use such expressions as "went away," "lost," "rest" or "sleep" because they only cause confusion. Explain what happened in a way your child can understand. Be careful how you explain the circumstances. For example, if sickness was the cause of death, be sure your child understands that only very serious illnesses cause death, and that most people recover after being sick. After such a discussion, some children become silent, while others immediately have a lot of questions. Answer as best you can, be nonjudgmental in your responses, be honest if you do not know the answers, and most of all, be reassuring and comforting.

 Deal with Emotions

Children as well as adults suffer bereavement, but they are often less able to cope with their grief. It is important to encourage children to talk about any feelings they have. Allow your child to see your own grief, and explain that you are feeling hurt and loss too, so that your child will not feel so alone and will open up about their own feelings. Studies show that children often feel guilty after the death of someone close, as if they feel it is their fault. Reassure your child that death is not a punishment or the indirect result of the bad deeds of others. Some children feel anger at the loved one for leaving them, or surviving family members, or the medical personnel for not saving the loved one. Let your child express such feelings without condemnation.

Prepare for Funerals and Wakes

Funerals and wakes are valuable ceremonies that commemorate the life of the person who has died and help relatives and friends cope with the loss. If your child is old enough to understand what it is and wants to attend such a function, be sure to explain in advance any details that would be unusual to the child such as an open casket, people weeping and religious observances.

Even after the initial trauma, grief takes time to overcome. The closeness of your child to the person who died will affect how your child reacts at first and the length of the recovery process. Reassuring your child and helping them cope with the loss and pain assuages your own grief as well and unites you as a family.