Many people regard thoughts or conversations about death and dying as being negative, or they see death as a failure or they avoid conversations around death and dying believing they’re being morbid. If you’re feeling concerned about discussing death with your children, you’re not alone!
Most of us hesitate to talk about death to children, however, it’s an inescapable part of life. One of the ways to help them – and reassure ourselves at the same time – is to let them know that it is all right to talk about it.
When we talk to them about the thoughts and feelings they have, we can discover what they know or don’t know. They might have fears, misconceptions or concerns which we can help allay through information, understanding and reassurance.
Talking through our feelings might not change the situation but it will certainly change the way we feel about the situation.
It’s important to show interest in and respect for what a child has to say. In this way we can better hear what their perceptions are rather than giving further information which might only confuse.
YOUR CHILDREN ARE PROBABLY FAR MORE AWARE OF DEATH THAN YOU REALISE
Even very young children have seen dead lizards, birds or insects. If they watch television they probably see at least one death a day on the screen and their games will often play out their fantasies about death and dying.
However, a child can feel quite confused and frightened when the possibility of death and loss come close through the advent of an illness in a loved one.
WHAT YOU SAY TO YOUR CHILD, HOW AND WHEN WILL DEPEND ON THEIR AGE AND UNDERSTANDING
You may need to speak to children separately so that you can tailor the conversation to the understanding of the child. Not talking about death and dying when someone they love is likely to die, leaves them to struggle to understand what’s happening without any guidance.
For instance, preschool children may have the notion that death is completely reversible or temporary, while 5-9 year olds will realise that death is final and that all things which are alive must die. In this age group though, the children often have the notion that it happens to other people and that it couldn’t happen to them or their loved ones.
They often feel they can control death through their own cleverness, bargaining or efforts. Children can take things very literally. A child may feel responsible for someone’s illness if they have repeatably been told, “You make me sick!”
From about the age of 9, children begin to fully comprehend that death is irreversible, that all living things die, and that they too will someday die. The precise age at which children will comprehend death and its implications will vary according to a whole host of factors.
THE OPPOSITE OF DEATH IS BIRTH, NOT LIFE
I’ve been with many people when they die and it is really obvious to me that someone ‘leaves’ the body, leaving behind an empty shell. We live through the process of dying. Every one of us is going to pass through the experience of death and not to talk about it can isolate us in our experience.
Death is one of the most mysterious and awesome adventures upon which we’re all obliged to embark and to share openly with our loved ones the concepts, uncertainties and apprehensions we hold can bring us to a much greater depth of intimacy and understanding.
DO’S AND DON’TS
Young children cannot fully comprehend death. Can any of us? Remember, how much you include your children in your thoughts and discussions will depend entirely upon their age and development. Trust in what you know of your children and listen to your own heart. You’ll then know how much of yourself to share with them.
Children can cope with anything so long as they are included in the family’s journey around illness, grief, death and dying and they feel loved and reassured.
- Do communicate with children of all ages with words that are simple and truthful.
- Don’t use statements like:
God has taken the parent away to heaven
The parent has gone on a ‘long trip’ or is ‘lost’.
Children may worry that if they ‘get lost’ themselves, they too will die. And they may be downright angry with God for wanting the parent in heaven when they wanted mum or dad here on earth. They may want to go to heaven immediately to be reunited with their loved one.
- Do leave a little mystery in the story we tell as pretending to know too much will be picked up by small children. It’s always ok to answer a question like, “how did the spirit get out of Mum’s body” – as I was asked by a 4-year old boy many years ago – with, “That’s a fabulous question. I don’t know. I’ve heard that it leaves through the top of the head, but I don’t know.”
- Do reassure the child that many people become sick but only those who are very ill die.
- Don’t make any association between sleep and death.
- Do reminisce about the past. Children will gain greatly from going through photographs, telling stories, rereading letters or postcards, and retelling incidents from the past.
- Do watch videos of family occasions where happy times were being shared. They are tremendously valuable in helping children to be aware of and express their feelings. It’s sad to recall the good times when they’re gone but it’s far better to do that than to pretend you never had them.
- Do cry and share your feelings together. It won’t be possible to hide your grief from your children. To cry together is healthy, as are hugs and cuddles.
- Don’t share the full force of your grief though – be mindful of what you express in their presence. To say, for instance ‘I wish I was dead too’ or ‘I don’t know how I’ll ever cope’ might be representative of how you’re feeling but will do nothing to help your child feel more secure. To say ‘I feel so terribly sad without Daddy and I miss him so much, but I know I’ll feel better soon’ might be more appropriate.
- Do be mindful of your words on the telephone and with people when young ears are about. Children are great over-hearers of what’s being said, or they notice when the conversation stops or changes when they enter a room. Children are generally very poor interpreters of what they’ve heard. If they’re not given good information, they may feel that they’re not trusted with important information or that things are so bad, that no one is talking about it. Children’s imaginings can be far worse than the actual situation.
- Do use symbols to help children understand the concept. A walk in the garden is full of possibilities for discussions on death and dying. Leaves that turn from green to yellow to brown, that let go the tree of life only when they’re ready to fly free through the air and land softly, to become mulch and soil to give new life to the tree. Or a cicada shell – a thing of beauty in itself which was left behind as an even more beautiful creature emerged from its shell. The seasons constantly demonstrate the ebb and flow of life.
- One mother, Susan, explained about life and spirit and bodies in a tangible way to her 3 small children whose father was very ill. She took a balloon and blew it up. She explained to the children that the balloon was only made beautiful and special by the air which was inside it – and yet the air is invisible. The balloon was like a body, a shell in which they lived. When she let the air out of the balloon, she explained how the life and spirit leaving the body becomes part of everything else.
All these words represent guidelines only. They don’t adequately address the pain present throughout the death of a loved one. It takes time. It takes faith, and above all, it takes patience. We can either choose to grow or wither in our response to the loss of a person we love. We must assist our children in their search for meaning and understanding so that they, too, may grow and flourish.
— Extract from Quest for Life by Petrea King
The Rainbow Ritual. This ritual has developed out of our work in helping children deal with challenging, sad or distressing news. We have found it to be a wonderful blessing for children and a comfort for their parents. You can take as long or as little time with this ritual as seems appropriate for the age of the child. This ritual is wonderful for children from the age of about 3.