Children and Death – Perception and Dealing
The pain of death can be devastating to an adult, but if children are involved then special care has to be taken if those children are to develop into well adjusted adults. Children and death in the perfect world would have no relation to each other. People would die old and so children would not have to be told about this until they were old enough to fully understand the finality of death. But the world is not perfect and while it may be easy to brush off the death of a diseased old aunt, it may not be so easy to do the same with the death of a sibling or parent.
Children are sensitive beings and in a world where children and death are forced to meet, it is essential that both primary and secondary care givers should be able to know how to deal with a child in this case. The child will have many questions requiring equally as many answers, some of which you may not have and this may make you mad. Well, these are children and they are curious by nature so buckle up and learn how to deal with such a situation.
Children at different age groups perceive death differently. By children, we mean those past the toddler stage upto 18 years. 3-6 year olds take everything literally in black and white so you want to put this in the easiest and simplest terms possible. Let them understand that having died the person can never be with them again as their body has ceased to function.
7-10 year olds think that death is associated with what they see in movies and therefore more terrifying than reality. These need to be explained to that there is nothing to be terrified about with death and that it is the natural process of all living things.
11 years onward, they tend to understand the finality of death as adults would and so tend to feel more pain. They may also start to have unreasonable fear toward whatever it is that killed the person they know. In this case, you need to be there for them and comfort them. Do not expect them to confide in you immediately after the death as they may be more comfortable discussing it with their friends.
On thing you should remember when offering explanations is never to liken death to any other ordinary activity such as sleeping or going away for trips. You may frighten the little children into failing to sleep or having nightmares when they do, because they think it will happen to them too. They may also expect the person to return from the trip. Another thing, if you have any religious beliefs pertaining to afterlife, this is the time to discuss them in detail.
You can also have a conversation about death before an actual death occurs for example when passing via the cemetery and your child asks a question about it, you can steer the conversation to cover the topic of death, so that they are prepared for the eventuality.
It is essential to make your child understand the purpose of the funeral service and they should be allowed to attend. Explain to your child why people need to be buried after they die and let them understand that while the person is dead, they are not forgotten.
Another thing to put into consideration is that people are allowed to express their grief in any way they feel. Let the child know that it is okay to feel excess pain or to feel numb and emotionless. There is no proper way of grieving and a child needs to learn this early on to avoid them feeling guilty for not behaving like anyone else.
Sometimes, children may have feelings of guilt and the funeral is a good time to observe them and try to gauge their feelings. If you suspect something sinister, you should talk to your child and let them know that the death of a loved one is not their fault. While their worries may seem ridiculous, to the child they are very real and can be a cause for alarm. For example, an 8 year old may think that because he said to his sister he wished she would die, she actually did die or a sixteen year old who survived an accident where 2 of his friends died may blame himself for surviving. These are feelings that need to be dealt with and eliminated to avoid the child falling into depression.
Time to get help
It may be difficult with children to know when it is time to get some professional help as a result of death but there are some signs you can watch for. The radical change in the behavior of a child after the death that goes on beyond a period of six months in teenagers is a cause for worry. For children below ten years, the mourning period tends to be shorter as they forget faster and are more willing to accept losses compared to their older counterparts.
Every child is different and each parent knows their child best. You should be the judge of what is right and what is not according to the general nature of your child. You can take your child to see a counselor or psychiatrists if things seem to be going badly for your child since the death. It is however important to keep communication lines open with them so they can talk to you at any time if they want to.
Children will have many questions about death, some of which will be repeated over and over, but it is important that you maintain your cool and not get mad. Getting angry at a child in a death situation can be very traumatizing to the child and leave them scarred for life. It is your duty as a parent to take care of all your child’s needs, and so no matter who died, your first priority should be your child and then yourself. We are not saying that you should ignore yourself but rather that since this may be your child’s first contact with death, you want to make sure that it does not leave them damaged.