Dealing With Death
The death of a loved one is never easy, but it can be especially hard for your child to lose a close friend or a family member. Even the death of the family pet-which is often the first time a child has to deal with death-can be a confusing and scary experience for a child.
As a parent or caring adult, your first thought may be to shelter your child from the painful reality of death. You may even have trouble dealing with death yourself, and may not know how best to support your child. But not dealing with death or holding back the grieving process-for either yourself or your child-can lead to problems in the long run. Your child may think that it's wrong to show sadness, or he may develop extreme fear and worry about death. He may even start to show his grief in unhealthy ways, such as turning to alcohol or illegal drugs for comfort. So, it's important for children to know that they can share their feelings and get honest answers from their parents about death.
What To Know
Your child's understanding of death depends on her age and experience. By the age of 8 or 9, children usually have a basic adult concept of death-that it is a permanent end of life and that it happens to everyone. However, they may wonder about the physical details of death ("Does it hurt when you die?") or about what happens after you die. A child may be afraid that he or his parents will die. You can tell him that you will do everything you can to keep him and your family safe, and that there will always be someone to take care of him.1
Teenagers often feel that they are "immortal"-that death will not affect them. When someone dies, teens sometimes react with defiance or denial, and they may not want to talk about it.2 You can let your teen know that you are open to talking, without pushing her to talk. But be on the lookout for unhealthy outlets for your teen's grief, such as substance use.
What To Do
No matter how old your child is, he needs honesty and emotional support from you when someone dies. Here are some ways you can support your child through the grieving process.
- Tell the truth. Gentle but truthful language is best: "Grandpa died. He's not coming back, but we will always remember him." Don't tell your child that her grandfather "went away" or "is asleep." Even phrases like "passed away" or "is no longer with us" may be confusing for young children.
- Share your grief. Express your feelings and allow your child to express her feelings so that they aren't expressed in other, unhealthy ways. Hiding your own grief from your child will send the message that it's not okay to cry or get upset.
- Comfort your child. Explaining that death is "a part of life" may help ease your child's fears of the unknown.3 If you are religious or spiritual, sharing your beliefs-for example, a belief in an afterlife-also may help your child feel better.
- Help your child deal with difficult emotions-including anger, guilt, shame, or confusion. These emotions sometimes stem from false ideas that your child has about someone's death.4 For example, a child may feel guilty because she thinks she did something to cause the death, or that she could have prevented the death, but failed to. Correct these thoughts as soon as possible.
- Encourage your child to attend the funeral or memorial services, but don't force her. Many children prefer to be close to their families in times of grief. If your child chooses not to attend memorial services, you can allow him to say goodbye at a later time. For example, you can take him to visit the gravesite.
If you were close to the person who died, take care of your own emotional well-being, too. Get help if you need it, especially if your own grief is keeping you from supporting your child. Talk to a friend, a faith community leader, a doctor, or a mental health professional.
1Hospice Net. Talking to Children About Death, last referenced 12/1/2003.
2Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. Care of the Terminally Ill Child, last referenced 12/1/2003.
4Scholastic. The Child's Loss: Death, Grief, and Mourning, last referenced 12/1/2003.
Reprinted with the permission of the Department of Health and Human Services.
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