Talking to Children
Talking to children about death must be geared to their developmental level, respectful of their cultural norms, and sensitive to their capacity to understand the situation. Children will be aware of the reactions of significant adults as they interpret and react to information about death and tragedy. In fact, for elementary school aged children adult reactions will play an especially important role in shaping their perceptions of the situation. The range of reactions that children display in response to the death of significant others may include:
- Emotional shock and at times an apparent lack of feelings, which serve to help the child detach from the pain of the moment;
- Regressive (immature) behaviors, such as needing to be rocked or held, difficulty separating from parents or significant others, needing to sleep in parent’s bed or an apparent difficulty completing tasks well within the child’s ability level;
- Explosive emotions and acting out behavior that reflect the child’s internal feelings of anger, terror, frustration and helplessness. Acting out may reflect insecurity and a way to seek control over a situation for which they have little or no control;
- Asking the same questions over and over, not because they do not understand the facts, but rather because the information is so hard to believe or accept.
Helping Children Cope
The following tips will help parents, and other caregivers support children who have experienced the loss of parents, friends, or loved ones.
- Allow children to tell their own story: Give children the opportunity to share their experience and be a good listener.
- Consider the child's age and developmental stage, as well as their individual needs: Don’t assume that every child understands death in the same way or with the same feelings:
- Allow adequate time for each child to grieve: Grieving is an ongoing process and not an event. Although some children will be eager to return to predictable routines, pushing them to resume day to day activities without giving them the chance to deal with their emotional pain may prompt additional problems or negative reactions.
- Don’t lie or tell half-truths to children about the tragic event: Children will see through false information and wonder why you do not trust them with the truth. Lies do not help the child through the healing process or help develop effective coping strategies for life’s future tragedies or losses.
- Give the child information at the level that he/she can understand: Allow the child to guide adults as to the need for more information or clarification of the information presented. Loss and death are both part of the cycle of life that children need to understand.
- Encourage children to ask questions about loss and death: Don't be anxious about not knowing all the answers. Treat questions with respect and a willingness to help the child find his or her own answers.
- Don’t assume that children always grieve in an orderly or predictable way: We all grieve in different ways and there is no one “correct” way for people to move through the grieving process.
- Let children know that you really want to understand what they are feeling or what they need: Sometimes children are upset but they cannot tell you what will be helpful. Giving them the time and encouragement to share their feelings with you may enable them to sort out their feelings.
- Children will need long-lasting support: The more losses the child or adolescent suffers, the more difficult it will be to recover. This is especially true if they have lost a parent who was their major source of support. Try to develop multiple supports for children who suffer significant losses.
- Understand that grief work is challenging and complicated: Deaths that result from a terrorist act or war can bring forth many issues that are difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend. Grieving may also be complicated by a need for vengeance or justice and by the lack of resolution of the current situation: the conflict may continue and the nation may still feel at risk. The sudden or violent nature of the death or the fact that some individuals may be considered missing rather than dead can further complicate the grieving process.
- Be aware of your own need to grieve: Focusing on the children in your care is important, but not at the expense of your emotional needs. Adults who have lost a loved one will be far more able to help children work through their grief if they get help themselves. For some families, it may be important to seek family grief counseling, as well as individual sources of support.
Developmental Phases in Understanding Death
It is important to recognize that all children are unique in their understanding of death and dying. This understanding depends on their developmental level, cognitive skills, personality characteristics, religious or spiritual beliefs, teachings by parents and significant others, input from the media, and previous experiences with death. Nonetheless, there are some general considerations that will be helpful in understanding how children and adolescents experience and deal with death.
- Infants and Toddlers: The youngest children may perceive that adults are sad, but have no real understanding of the meaning or significance of death.
- Preschoolers: Young children may deny death as a formal event and may see death as reversible. They may interpret death as a separation, not a permanent condition. Preschool and even early elementary children may link certain events and magical thinking with the causes of death. For instance, as a result of the World Trade Center disaster, some children may imagine that going into tall buildings may cause someone’s death.
- Early Elementary School: Children at this age (approximately 5-9) start to comprehend the finality of death. They begin to understand that certain circumstances may result in death. They can see that, if large planes crash into buildings, people in the planes and buildings will be killed. In case of war images, young children may not be able to differentiate between what they see on television, and what might happen in their own neighborhood. However, they may over-generalize, particularly at ages 5-6—if jet planes don’t fly, then people don’t die. At this age, death is perceived as something that happens to others, not to oneself or one’s family.
- Middle School: Children at this level have the cognitive understanding to comprehend death as a final event that results in the cessation of all bodily functions. They may not fully grasp the abstract concepts discussed by adults or on the TV news but are likely to be guided in their thinking by a concrete understanding of justice. They may experience a variety of feelings and emotions, and their expressions may include acting out or self-injurious behaviors as a means of coping with their anger, vengeance and despair.
- High School: Most teens will fully grasp the meaning of death in circumstances such as an automobile accident, illness and even the World Trade Center or Pentagon disasters. They may seek out friends and family for comfort or they may withdraw to deal with their grief. Teens (as well as some younger children) with a history of depression, suicidal behavior and chemical dependency are at particular risk for prolonged and serious grief reactions and may need more careful attention from home and school during these difficult times.
Should Children Attend Funerals?
Every society has some form of ceremony to help the living accept and cope with the loss of a loved one. Whether or not a particular child should attend a funeral depends on the child and the situation. If the child is old enough to understand and wants to participate, being included may help them accept the reality of the death while in the supportive company of family and friends.
If a child is to attend a funeral, they should be prepared for what they will hear and see before, during, and after the services. They should be made aware that people will be expressing their own grief in various ways and that some will be crying. If possible, someone who is calm and can respond to questions the child might ask during the service should accompany the child. If they prefer not to attend the funeral, they should not be coerced or made to feel guilty about not attending.
The Loss of a Pet
For most kids, pets are more than just animals; they're members of the family and the best of friends. Unfortunately the joy of owning a pet goes hand-in-hand with the heartbreak of losing one, whether due to old age, illness, or accident. Facing the death of a family pet is often a young child's first experience with death and can be one of the more traumatic events in their young life. Understand that your child might experience a variety of emotions when this occurs but that working through this grieving process can help them learn how to cope with other losses throughout life. Try to gauge how much information kids need to hear based on their age, maturity level, and life experience and avoid glossing over the event by telling a lie. Let them know its okay to feel sad or to cry and encourage them to talk about their feelings. It may help some children to express their feelings of grief by drawing pictures or writing letters, having a family memorial service, planting a tree or flowers in their honor, or by making a photo album or scrap book. There are also many books written for children to help them cope with this loss. Preview these and chose one that is geared towards the child's age and developmental stage.
Resources for Grieving and Traumatized Children
At times of severe stress, such as the trauma of war or terrorist attacks, both children and adults need extra support. Children who are physically and emotionally closest to this tragedy may very well experience the most dramatic feelings of fear, anxiety and loss. They may have personally lost a loved one or know of friends and schoolmates who have been devastated by these treacherous acts. Adults need to carefully observe these children for signs of traumatic stress, depression or even suicidal thinking, and seek professional help when necessary.
- Deaton, R.L. & Berkan, W.A. (1995). Planning and managing death issues in the schools: A handbook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.
- Mister Rogers Website: www.misterrogers.org (see booklet on Grieving for children 4-10 years)
- Webb, N.B. (1993). Helping bereaved children: A handbook for practitioners. New York: Guilford Press.
- Wolfelt, A. (1983). Helping children cope with grief. Bristol, PA: Accelerated Development.
- Wolfelt, A (1997). Healing the bereaved child: Grief gardening, growth through grief and other touchstones for caregivers. Ft. Collins, CO: Companion.
- Worden, J.W. (1996). Children and grief: When a parent dies. New York: Guilford Press
- The Children's Room; Arlington, MA www.childrensroom.org
- Gootman, M.E. (1994). When a friend dies: A book for teens about grieving and healing. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing.
- Greenlee, S. (1992). When someone dies. Atlanta: Peachtree Publishing. (Ages 9-12).
- Wolfelt, A. (2001). Healing your grieving heart for kids. Ft. Collins, CO: Companion. (See also similar titles for teens and adults)
- Brown, L.K. (1998). When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death (Ages 4-8)
- Viorst, J. (1987). The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (Ages 6-9) (Loss of a pet)
National Association of School Psychologists: www.nasponline.org
Hospice: Talking to Children About Death: www.hospicenet.org
Helping Your Child When the Family Pet Dies: www.aspca.org
When a Pet Dies - KidsHealth: m.kidshealth.org