Losing someone we love is extremely painful. For children it can be especially confusing, because children do not think like adults. Studies have shown that children cannot distinguish fantasy from reality until the age of seven or eight. This makes the permanence of death difficult to grasp. Just like the cartoon characters that pop back up after they have been run over by a car, children often think that people who are dead will come back.
Helping children grieve requires awareness and emotional sensitivity from supportive adults. The grieving process involves many stages of emotions that come and go over a period of one to three years. Adults sometimes want to shelter children from pain by not talking about death, thinking that this will make it less painful. However, this is the worst alternative. The most important way to move through grief is to tell the story at least one hundred times. Even though it may be uncomfortable, this will actually help a child work through the stages of grief.
Some things to remember when talking to children about death are:
1. Avoid euphemisms, and always tell the truth.
Children need to know that the person is never coming back. Expressions such as “sleeping,” “passed on” and “left us” are confusing and should be avoided. Instead, use honest terms such as “died,” “he stopped living,” “his body stopped working,” “he had a very bad disease.” Use phrases that do not misrepresent the reality of death and that the child can understand.
2. Encourage the expressions of emotions.
Many feelings are going to come and go during the grief process. Children need to feel free to express them in some manner. Anger is part of grief, and children may need outlets to express it. Let them be angry and sad. Don’t try to make them feel better, but give them the freedom and space to feel what they need to feel. Remember, it takes time to move through the stages of grief.
3. Explain what is going to happen.
Children can participate in the ceremonies of saying goodbye to someone who has died. A family member or close relative should explain the different places and events as gently as possibly. Talking through the services and the burial rituals will help the child understand and say goodbye in a way that works for him or her.
4. Make a “memory album.”
As time passes after a death, the child may want to make a memory album. In the book he can draw pictures, write letters and place special memorabilia. This memory book helps to keep that special someone alive in his heart.
5. Use caution when discussing religious beliefs.
Telling a child that God or Angels have taken a loved one can be frightening. The child may fear that will happen to him. Even though religious beliefs can be comforting at the time of death, the words need to be chosen carefully. Try to avoid images that could create additional fear, fantasies or anger.
Children who are grieving need strong support from those who can help them get through the pain and make them feel safe and secure. Death isn’t easy for anyone, but if you can help a child remember the special person in his life, you are sharing the gift of memory. That is what remains after the pain.