Sunday, December 10, 1989
Helping a Child Face Death
Five percent of U.S. children will lose a parent before they reach the age of fifteen. Many more lose grandparents, friends or pets. What can we do to help? As parents, teachers in schools and Sunday Schools, friends and family we sometimes have the challenge and opportunity to assist a grieving child.
Here are just a few quick and brief thoughts. A conversation with the pastor or a counselor may also be helpful as a source for more information.
We often want to “fix” things with our words, but words will not make some things better. They often make them worse! So it is more important to “be there” for the child, than to try to give a child a dissertation on the process of healthy grieving.
Talking about death...
What should be said? Take the cue from the child. A child will let you know what he or she is ready to hear by asking questions. When the child asks questions like “how did Daddy die?” or “did Grandmother hurt badly when she died,” then the child is probably ready to know the answer. Simple, honest answers are often best.
It is usually best to give the child only the information that is asked for and no more. If the child is ready for more information, the child will ask.
If the child is not asking, don't force the child to open up. A gentle prompt, however, may be helpful -- “do you have any questions you’d like to ask?”
A lot of people, including adults, “talk out their grief.” We often find this in adults who tell and retell the same story about a spouse’s death. Such telling of stories is helpful. Children will do the same thing, telling others how a parent or grandparent died. Letting the child talk it out, often helps avoid problems with “acting it out” through tantrums and misbehavior.
Feel free to ask children to tell you about fun things they remember doing with the deceased.
How to describe death...
Don't explain death as a trip or as sleep. Children may fear future vacations or bedtime as a result.
Don’t explain that it was “the will of God,” or “God needed Mommy more than you did.” These are non-biblical and are rejected by serious Catholic, Protestant and Jewish theologians. Children will see through the illogic of these statements. “Why would a loving God make my Daddy die? How was Mommy so powerful that God needed her in heaven -- what work is so important there anyway?” Such statements will lead a child to think of God as frightening and evil, doing bad things to people we love.
You may find ways to describe the event of death as sad, but the state of death (heaven) as happy and peaceful.
If the death happened after a long illness, you might describe death as a healing: “Mommy is all better now, and no longer needs a wheelchair or oxygen tanks.”
The child’s concept of death...
A young child may not understand the permanence of death. It is important that a child understand that the one who has died will not be seen or heard. A child’s previous experience with the death of a relative, friend, or even a pet can help the child understand the concept of death’s permanence.
Young children often know some people die, without realizing that everyone dies. A young child may be just beginning to understand that death is a universal experience. This may create anxiety in the child – “Now that Mommy died, will Daddy die soon?” The child might also worry, “Will I die soon?” There may be some separation anxiety that needs to be addressed by adults being comforting and being prompt. If you tell a child you will pick him or her up at a certain time, it is very important to be prompt.
Should the child attend the funeral?
You don’t want to leave the child out. However, with young children, you may want to have an adult friend or relative who will sit next to the child who will offer to leave with the child if he or she is bored or feels uncomfortable.
In all activities surrounding a time of death, it is important to let the child know he or she is welcome to be a part of the family.
Some helpful things to do...
Help the child “locate” the deceased. The child will want to know, “where did Mommy go?“ The location will vary depending on what the family decides, but the location might be heaven, a grave or cemetery, or in our hearts. It is not uncommon to tell children that a deceased parent is watching over the child. (Although avoid using the term “angel” since biblically speaking, and in the theologies of Catholic, Protestant and Jewish teachings angels are not people who have died. They are a separate creation.)
Help the child experience the deceased in some way. Talk about dreams they may have of the deceased. Even adults need to experience this connection and will place flowers on a grave or create memorials for their loved ones. The child might find it helpful to place flowers or even toys on a grave.
Encourage the child to keep things that belonged tot he deceased. This helps the child maintain a link to that person.