Death is naturally difficult for adults because it involves pain, separation and suffering. If it were possible, we would protect children from that moment, but we cannot spare them. Perhaps, while you read this, you are thinking of some kid who just lost someone she/he loved. Many doubts arise: “Should I talk about death to a child?” “How did she/he understand death?” “Will it be good to see me crying?” “Must I bring them to the funeral?”
See some tips below.
“Should we talk about death to a child?”
First, we must say that death is also a child’s business; it means we cannot hide the fact or prevent a child to be aware of it. Talking about death is important and healthy in order to help her/him deal with the pain. Children feel when we hide something from them and suffer a lot with this lack of information. Therefore, in case of a close person’s death, it should be communicated. We anticipate that this task will not be easy but it is the most appropriate way to conduct such a situation. When speaking, consider the following precautions:
– Choose someone close to the child, and who is in the best emotional conditions to give the news.
– Put her/him in your arms, welcoming them physically this time.
– Avoid detailing the cause of death, especially in case of violence.
– Leave him/her free to ask whatever they want about it.
– Use the word death and avoid substitutions like “sleep,” “traveled”, “left”, “went away”. These words may confuse the child who still understands everything literally.
“How does a child react to death”?
The child also goes through the process of grieving – a deep sadness state – differently from the adult. The younger the child, the less able she/he will be to rationally understand death. Children go through grief in different ways, but they do go through it. Some children take a while to respond to the death of a beloved one. Only as time goes by, children show their feelings and show they miss the beloved one.
It is common for children to fantasize that the person who died left her, and feel anger at this, they may become more aggressive for a while. Some feel guilty, thinking they did something wrong and therefore the person died. They usually come up with magic solutions to avoid this pain. It is not uncommon to hear children say that they are going to heaven to look for the person who is gone. Generally, the child starts to be afraid of losing other people they love and gets more attached to them; they don’t want to separate from them or go to school or a friend’s house. This behavior is not permanent, it will go away with time, but family members should be patient and understand what is happening.
It is very important that the child has space to talk about things he/she feels, and thinks about what happened. In this sense, the family can help a lot, creating opportunities to tackle the subject openly.
“Is it ok to see me crying”?
It is not always easy for the family to talk about it but most of the time everyone is sad. There is no reason to hide sadness and there is nothing bad about seeing adults crying and understanding they are sad because a beloved one is gone. Besides that, it is a good example for kids to understand that it is ok to cry when someone dies and they will understand also, they can express their pain so their grieving becomes a lighter.
“Should a child go to the viewing”?
Children may go to the viewing but they must be asked beforehand. We must understand that they don’t know what happens exactly at a viewing and, that is why an adult must tell them what happens there. It is important to say, with simple words, that the body of someone who died goes to a special box for a while so everyone can see her/him once again before being buried. It is also important to tell children that there will be people crying, because they are sad. It is good to remind them that the person who died doesn’t feel pain anymore, cold or any other kind of discomfort. After explaining, ask them if they still want to go and take them just in case they say yes; don’t push them but don’t deny them the right to go. Just like we tell children about life we have also to tell them about death. Talking about it is not pleasant but it is needed because nobody is free from going through a grieving process with children involved.
Ana Lúcia Naletto
Psychologist, coordinator at the Psicologia Maiêutica center where she Works with bereaved ones and develops projects in order to support the grieving process in any case. Author of a chapter in “Morte e Luto no contexto escolar”(Death and Grieving in the school contexto), “O luto da criança”(The Child’s Grieving) (ED. Pleno).