While dealing with their own grief over the passing of a loved one, parents are faced with the task of explaining the death to their children. Chartered Psychologist Lesley Lacny says children don’t fully understand the concept of death until age nine. She says, “Most children initially view death as something that isn’t permanent.” Children have an easier time grasping what’s present than what’s absent, making it important for parents to help them through their loss.
Explain death in child-friendly terms. Parents can help children understand the cycle of life by using simple examples from nature, such as a rose that dies on the rosebush, allowing a new rose to bloom. Lesley says, “Help to normalize the process by explaining that all things – plants, animals and people – will die and that this is part of nature and how we are made.” Children are often curious about the details and may have concerns about their own mortality, although it may take time for these questions to surface as your child begins to process the information.
“Children appreciate hearing the truth,” says Lesley. Softening the news with euphemisms like “Grandma has gone to sleep” may lead to confusion as the child may be waiting for Grandma to wake up. Young children may need to repeatedly hear that the person will not be coming back.
Just like adults, children experience a mix of emotions after the death of a loved one. Reassure them that all of their feelings are OK and help them to understand what kinds of feelings they may experience. Ensure they understand that the death is not their fault and that any negative thoughts or feelings they had towards someone did not cause them to die. Lesley has seen examples of this.“I see situations in which the child was mad at Dad that morning and later Dad didn’t return home after a fatal car accident.”
It’s important to remind children that the person is not in pain, that death is not a punishment and that it’s all right for them to still have fun. They should not feel as though they have to be sad or behave in a certain way.
Parents may assume children will be emotionally scarred from the experience of attending a funeral, but the ritual can be part of the child’s healing process. Prepare them for the funeral by discussing what the room will look like, who will be there and how people will behave. Older children may want to participate in the planning by choosing a song or photos to display. While viewing the body may not be appropriate for younger children, give older children a choice and talk to them beforehand about what the body will look like. Have a friend join you in case your child gets too upset or wants to leave.
The death of the family pet
Losing a pet can be more difficult for kids than losing a relative. Pets are often the first ones to greet kids in the morning and after school and may be the one your child looks to for comfort when they’re ill or upset. The impact of their death can be deeper for a child than for an adult, so it’s important to take their grief seriously.
If your pet is aging or ill, talk to your kids before death occurs and give them a chance to say goodbye. Do something special with the pet such as saying personal words or feeding them their favourite food.
If the pet dies suddenly, explain what has happened honestly and allow children to ask questions. Avoid glossing over the truth with a lie. Saying “Max has run away” or “Kitty went on a trip” won’t alleviate the sadness of losing the pet and when the truth comes out, your child will be angry that you lied.
Ask your child if they would like to hold a ceremony for the pet. Invite each family member to share a funny story or fond memory, plant a flower or tree in their memory or create a memory box with photos and messages your child has written to the pet.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, December 2012.