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  1. #1

    How to Help Your Child Deal With Death

    How to Help Your Child Deal With Death
    When Jennifer T.'s grandfather died unexpectedly, the 4-year-old bombarded her grief-stricken parents with questions: "What did they put Poppa into to bury him? Is he lying down or standing up in the ground? What's he wearing?" Jennifer's mother had expected questions, but she was surprised by the child's need for literal explanations.

    "I was shocked. I wasn't thinking along those lines. I was thinking totally emotional, spiritual, and she's getting into coffins and dirt," Jennifer's mother says. It's not that Jennifer wasn't going to miss Poppa. It's just that children deal with everything - even death - in concrete and simple terms.

    Here are some tips for helping kids cope with death - and at the same time teaching them to cherish life.

    Get a Handle on Your Own Feelings
    Most parents wait until confronted with death to start thinking about how to help their children with the concept. That may not be the best time, especially if the parents are also dealing with a loss.

    Better to take a few moments now and reflect on your beliefs about death and your own experiences with it. "Then you can explain to your kids what you felt when your pet cat Fluffy died or when your grandpa died. That will give them the feeling that death and loss are universal, which of course they are," says M. Nan Jobson, LCSW, a social worker in Jacksonville, Florida.

    Teach Your Child About the Circle of Life
    There are endless opportunities to talk about death as a part of life, but most parents ignore these chances, trying to protect children from unpleasantness. Experts say seize these opportunities instead. The dying blooms on the rose bush in the garden can teach a lesson about life and death, as can the changing seasons or the death of a family pet. Visit elderly relatives or friends and show children that aging, although not always pleasant, is natural. If children are given the message that dying is OK to talk about, they will feel free to ask questions and will cope better when confronted with the death of a loved one. Colleen Mayo Friedman, MSW, LCSW, a family bereavement specialist, says, "Kids face death naturally if the adults around them allow it."

    Include Your Child in Your Own Grief
    Someone close - a grandparent, a close friend, maybe even your spouse - has died. The parental instinct is to shield children from the pain you are feeling. Don't, or your child will be forced to deal with it later. Twenty-nine-year-old Jodie R. lost her father when she was 5. "No one in my family talked to me about his death. They just said, 'He went away,' and, of course, I wanted to know, 'When's he coming back?' I'm still asking that question today, and it continues to affect my life." Jodie wishes her family had let her in on the grieving. "I know they were trying to protect me. It didn't work in the long run," she says.

    It's not easy to let your child see you grieve, but hiding it from him or shuttling him off to Aunt Susie's will not only make him feel cut off from you but will send the message that it's not OK to cry or feel sad when someone dies. That is exactly the opposite of what your child needs to know. "What you want to do is give the child hope that the pain passes," says Jobson. "Your job is to let them know pain is part of living and that it does go away."

    Be Honest
    Children's questions about death are often hard to answer. The best you can do is be direct and honest at all times, and only give as much information as your child asks for. If, like Jennifer, it's coffins and dirt he wants to know about, talk about that. If he wants to know if he is going to die, your answer can be a totally honest, yet subtle, "That will be a long, long time from now."

    One of the biggest concerns children have is their own security. They want to know if Mommy and Daddy will always be there. Let your child know Mommy and Daddy will be around a long time too, but if anything did happen, he would always be cared for.

    Avoid cliches such as "Grandma's gone away" or "Grandpa went to sleep." These will raise more questions and cause more fear than a simple "Grandpa has died." And don't forget, if your child stumps you, you can always say, "I really don't know the answer to that."

    Be Spiritual
    Religion teaches about the meaning of life and death, provides explanations, and offers comfort. If you are not religious, you can still teach your children there is a higher meaning of life. We can carry on the good works of a loved one who died. We can dedicate some good works of our own to their memory. Parents can teach children that there is a reason for everything, even death. Seeing themselves as a small but important part of a larger mosaic can help children remain hopeful. "Spirituality helps in the sense that this is the way things are supposed to be, and it gives us hope that it's not over when it's over," says Rabbi Gary Perras.

    Keep the Memories Alive
    Rather than ban talk about the loved one who died, or avoid mentioning fun times together, go out of your way to keep the memories alive. Make a special photo album of the child with Grandpa, and look through it often; go out to eat at Grandma's favorite restaurant, and try to figure out what she would have ordered. Jennifer T. may have been only 4 when her "Poppa" died, but now at age 8, she thinks of him whenever she enjoys his favorite candy. "He liked butterscotch, and so do I," she says with a smile.

    "As long as we talk about that person, laugh or even cry about that person, that person lives on for us. Instead of just telling kids that, we should show them by doing it," Jobson adds.

    More Information
    The death of a family pet is often the first experience a child has with dying. Make it a valuable and positive lesson. Say goodbye to the pet, if at all possible. Go through the rituals of death with your child. Bury the pet. Say prayers for it, if appropriate for your family. Discuss death and your particular beliefs about it. Grieve together. Make an album of favorite photos of the animal. Talk about the pet often and with love. These small steps will give your child a strong foundation that will help him when faced with the loss of a person he loves.

    Should children be taken to funerals? In general, experts say yes. It is far better, even for an infant, to be with his family during a time of grief, than kept away. And if the deceased is a parent, then by all means a child should be included in all mourning rituals. Take time to prepare a child for what will happen at the funeral. ("Aunt Jane is going to cry a lot, and I just want to make sure you know that so it won't scare you.") If you think your own grief might prevent you from helping your child at this difficult time, appoint another relative or friend to stand in. If your child is reluctant to attend the funeral, don't force the issue. Discuss it, address the child's concerns, but don't push.

  2. #2

    Re: How to Help Your Child Deal With Death

    "The parental instinct is to shield children from the pain you are feeling. Don't, or your child will be forced to deal with it later."

    This quote from the topic is, in a nutshell, something I'm very concerned about as my brother is dying. He was told 2 months ago that he has pancreatic cancer and will die soon. He has 3 children, a 15 year old son and daughters age 9 and 12. His main concern is to protect his children and keep their lives from changing, so he won't tell the kids why he's so sick and how it's going to end.

    Although he looks terrible and has lost a lot of weight, he's been able to keep the truth from them because he was hit by a truck 12 years ago and has had a lot of surgeries ever since. The kids are used to seeing him in pain and recovering from surgeries and all that without a problem, so they assume this is just more of the same and they aren't overly concerned. Except this time he won't recover.

    He lives in a small town where everyone knows everything that's going on, so his 3 children are the only ones who don't know their dad is dying. Everyone at their school knows and all their friends know so it doesn't seem like he can keep this a secret from them much longer. However, he's made his decision and he gets very angry if anyone tries to talk to him about it. (Including his wife.)

    The risk of them finding out by overhearing other people talking about it really concerns me. They're old enough to understand what all this means, so how will this effect them later knowing that their dad chose to keep it from them? Would it be better for them to be spared the pain as long as possible, as my brother wishes? Or should they be told so they can know that the last weeks really are the last weeks, before it's too late? Will keeping the truth from them cause more harm than good in the long run?

    I don't want to cause my brother any pain by bringing up topics he doesn't want to discuss, but is this something I should just let go?

    I can always do better than I think I can.

  3. Re: How to Help Your Child Deal With Death

    I'm truly sorry to hear of your brother's illness. It will be a difficult time for all who love him. Having seen him recover from numerous surgeries over the years, the children have become somewhat inured to his being ill, and will expect his recovery. This time, it isn't going to happen. That's going to hit them hard.

    As a person who deals with death and dying, I come in contact with people who have hidden the truth from family members and friends rather often. In most cases, it's far more difficult for these family members to cope. Having warning allows people to deal with some of the aspects associated with loss and grief in advance. Death that sneaks up on one is always more difficult to come to terms with.

    Since your brother seems so adamant about keeping the truth of his condition a secret from his children, I don't know that there's much you can do. You might try to involve a minister (if such is available), a doctor, or a grief counsellor if he would be willing to talk to any of these. If not, his wife might be able to talk to someone about the issues and get some suggestions on how she and the children are to cope. Having someone knowledgable to talk to can make all the difference.

  4. #4

    Re: How to Help Your Child Deal With Death

    Quote Originally Posted by ThatLady
    ... the children have become somewhat inured to his being ill, and will expect his recovery. This time, it isn't going to happen. That's going to hit them hard.
    Exactly. Plus I worry that they may become angry with themselves for not noticing the difference; not that they should, but I've known grief to cause some pretty irrational feelings.

    Quote Originally Posted by ThatLady
    I come in contact with people who have hidden the truth from family members and friends rather often. In most cases, it's far more difficult for these family members to cope.
    I wasn't sure about this but was concerned it may be tbe case. Thank you for the clearing this up for me.

    Quote Originally Posted by ThatLady
    Since your brother seems so adamant about keeping the truth of his condition a secret from his children, I don't know that there's much you can do. You might try to involve a minister (if such is available), a doctor, or a grief counsellor if he would be willing to talk to any of these. If not, his wife might be able to talk to someone about the issues and get some suggestions on how she and the children are to cope. Having someone knowledgable to talk to can make all the difference.
    My brother has always surrounded himself with family and resents outside interference. In fact, the kids' school tried to talk to him and he got very angry and told them it's none of their business. He insists that everyone treat him like we always did and not like he's sick. He got angry with his wife for offering him a blanket when he was shivering and obvioulsy cold, then the anger drains his energy and he has to sleep for a long time. So, it's hard to do anything that will make him angry, knowing that it will take so much out of him.

    Only a close family member would be able to confront him with this issue, and it would surely make him angry and be a terrible drain on him. What I'm struggling with is, is it worth it? Does bringing up the potential damage the children could suffer outweigh the pain and anger it would cause my brother now. And even if it is worth is, do I have the right to interfere in the way my brother has chosen to die?

    I can always do better than I think I can.

  5. #5

    Re: How to Help Your Child Deal With Death

    Only a close family member would be able to confront him with this issue, and it would surely make him angry and be a terrible drain on him. What I'm struggling with is, is it worth it? Does bringing up the potential damage the children could suffer outweigh the pain and anger it would cause my brother now. And even if it is worth is, do I have the right to interfere in the way my brother has chosen to die?
    Annie, my guess is no. If the issue has already been raised with him (i.e., the potential negative impact on his children) and he has rejected that viewpoint, I think one needs to respect that. He knows he has limited time left to be a parent to them. He knows he has limited control over anything going on in his life at present. He believes that what he is doing is best for his children and that is one of the few decisioons left that he does have some control over. I would give him the gift of allowing him that control.

    The children may not even want to have the full reality forced on them at this point. The time will come when they will have to face it - there is an argument to be made, especially with younger children, for not doing this any sooner than absolutely necessary. There will be a time for you and other family members to support them in their grief (and you can still support them in other ways in the interim), but I am inclined to say that your brother probably needs his family more to support his decision for the time being.

  6. Re: How to Help Your Child Deal With Death

    If he feels that strongly about it, and has shown his feelings when confronted before, I agree with David. The best thing to do is to leave it be. When the time comes, if necessary, professional help can be of value to the children in dealing with their loss.

  7. #7

    Re: How to Help Your Child Deal With Death

    Thank you David and ThatLady,

    The advice you've both given me is in line with what I suspected to be the right thing to do. What kept nagging at me is that respecting my brother's wishes is the easiest thing for me to do under the circumstances. I had to be sure that I wasn't being cowardly at the expense of my neices and nephew. I have a visit planned with him tomorrow. With your help in clearing my doubts the visit will be much more pleasant. I'm grateful to both of you for that.

    Annie
    I can always do better than I think I can.

  8. #8

    Re: How to Help Your Child Deal With Death

    Good luck with your visit, Annie. We'll be thinking about you.

  9. Re: How to Help Your Child Deal With Death

    Enjoy your visit, hon. You'll be in my thoughts.

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