Many parents are not sure of how to explain death or dying to a child. Either fearing the child will not understand, or in an attempt to protect the child, adults often avoid the issue.
However, children are capable of experiencing grief and they can often accept death better than many adults. Most importantly, children also need the opportunity to grieve and to say goodbye to a loved one.
The most important things we can do to help children understand death and grieve are to accept and acknowledge their feelings, listen to them, and reassure them of our love.
It is important to tell children the truth in words they can understand as soon as possible after the death. Avoiding the topic of death and funerals may result in the child developing deep-seated fears and anxieties.
Generally the amount of interest the child shows is a gauge of their readiness to be told of an issue such as death. This will usually be expressed through the questions asked.
Different Ways For Different Ages
The most important element for grieving children is to acknowledge their emotion, and your own, and to reassure them of your ongoing presence and love.
Children should be encouraged to explore their emotions in whatever way suits their temperament. You are the best qualified to know what this may be – whether it is verbal, artistic, tactile, etc. Physical interaction with photos in making a family tree, a photo album or a collage are amongst the most effective ways to stimulate conversation and allow the child the opportunity to explore their feelings.
The child’s ownership of their decision whether to attend the funeral or not, or whether to speak of their loved one, is what helps them to feel some sense of control. One useful technique is to invite them to write an acrostic poem or list, describing the person using their name down the page to provide the first letter of each line. They may then like to read this at the minyan (evening service).
Up To Six Years
While it may be difficult for a child of this age to understand death, they will sense the sadness and may feel upset and fearful. Very young children will need to be reassured, listened to and comforted. Be prepared to answer questions such as ‘Where has Grandpa gone?’ and ‘Will Nanna be coming back?’ in brief, factual and clear ways. ‘Grandma doesn’t need her body any more, but her soul – the sparkle that was in her eyes – has gone to be with God for ever – and that sparkle is in my eyes and your eyes, and we’ll always try to remember her, won’t we? ‘In a day or two, we’ll carefully put her body in the earth and it will become a part of nature again. We’ll be very sad and we might cry, but we know that she will sleep peacefully for ever (with God)’.
Ages Six To Ten
From this age, children begin to see death as final and become curious about the funeral and about death. For this age as well, try to answer their questions honestly and as fully as you can.
They will also feel loss, pain and grief as they realise that someone they knew and loved will not be there anymore. It is important to reassure them that their reactions are normal and that it is all right and, in fact, it is important to speak of their feelings, release emotions and to cry. Let them know that you are always there when they need you.
Teenagers may find it difficult to cope if someone close to them dies, and they often begin to search for meaning and values.
While you should encourage them to talk about their feelings, do not force the issue. Try drawing them into discussions by asking their opinions or advice and by listening.
It is important to let them work out their feelings in their own time, but let them know you are there. Some teenagers may find it easier to talk to someone outside their immediate family such as a friend or relative.
Should Children Attend The Funeral?
Children should be encouraged, but not forced, to attend the funeral as an opportunity to say goodbye and to experience the grieving process. The choice to attend or not gives the child ownership and avoids the possible trauma of being forced to attend when they are not emotionally ready, or excluded when they feel the need for closure.
Explain the funeral service and if they decide to attend, consider having someone they know, but who is not an immediate mourner, to be with them, so that you are free to do your own mourning. Invite them to be involved in the service by placing three handfuls or three shovels of soil onto the coffin.
If You Don’t Know The Answer
Sometimes children ask questions that you do not know how to respond to. When this happens the best response may be just to listen and show your support.
There are also a number of books especially written for children that may help them gain an understanding of death and funerals.
Helping Them Cope
Children express their grief in different ways to adults, but be prepared to share your feelings. Be honest about why you are sad or lonely and show your feelings through touching, hugging and embracing.
Encourage the child to talk honestly about the deceased and allow them to express their feelings, cry and relive memories. Like adults, the grieving process will be painful, and will take time to work through.
We recommend telling people who have contact with the child, such as teachers and baby sitters, if someone close to the child dies. Grief can change behaviour and it may be easier if these people know the reasons for such change.
If the child is having long-term problems coping with the death of a loved one, it may be appropriate to organise counselling.