My daughter Raine’s first experience with death was when my 10-year old dog, Chloe, died. I explained to Raine that Chloe had gotten sick, and since she was so old, the doctor couldn’t help her anymore. She nodded understandingly and said, “OK. When Chloe’s feeling better, and she isn’t dead anymore, we can play again.”
While that was good for a laugh—enough to get me to stop crying for a few moments—it also shows that young children don’t have a clear grasp of death quite yet (Raine was two at that time). According to the National Association of School Psychologists, children’s reaction to death and grief depend also on what developmental stage they’re at. Infants and toddlers don’t understand it at all, though they can sense the sadness in the adults around them, and perhaps miss a familiar person. Preschoolers may understand that when people die they “go away”, but the permanence of death is something that they still have to come terms with; they may think that grandmother still eats and walks around “in the sky”, and that she will eventually come back. From two to six years of age, children still have what experts call “magical thinking”. A child may think, for example, that Mommy died because he didn’t put away his toys; or, in the case of someone dying in a car accident, that people who ride in cars will die.
Only when they reach the early grade school years—from five to nine years old—do children begin to grasp that death is forever (physical death, at least; spiritual beliefs that children are raised with will naturally affect their perception of the afterlife). By their teen years, children can understand the concept of death the way adults do, though they may still not know how to deal with the grief that comes with it (as is the case with many adults as well).
It’s important to handle death correctly since the support your children get at this stage will affect how they handle grief and loss later in life. Here are some tips on dealing with this delicate subject:
Talking about death
- Use precise terms when talking about death, says Grief Counselor and columnist Cathy Babao-Guballa. Young children tend to take things literally, so using euphemisms like “sleeping and didn’t wake up” or “went away” can make your child too scared to sleep (what if he didn’t wake up too?) or mislead him into thinking that Daddy will still come back.
- Give a simple, factual explanation, tailored to your child’s age and capabilities, says psychotherapist, Marriage & Family Counselor and Pastor Bayani Esguerra. You can just say something like, “Tito Mark died. He had cancer—it made his body stop working properly. The doctors couldn’t fix it anymore.” Too many details may confuse your child, so keep it short; add more information when your child asks more questions. You may have to repeat this several times, so be patient.
- Use words that your child can relate to when emphasizing the fact that when someone dies, he doesn’t come back or become alive again. My sister-in-law did a good job when she explained to her then-4-year-old son, Third, that Lolo Pepe wouldn’t stand up anymore because like Third’s favorite dinosaurs, Lolo Pepe was already “extinct”.
- Don’t spiritualize death by saying “Daddy went to heaven” or “God wanted your baby brother back”, says Pastor Esguerra. This may scare the child into thinking that God may want to take them any time too; or the child may end up hating God or heaven, because his loved one is taken away.
- You also have to be careful of how you explain the cause of death. Simply saying that Tito Albert got sick may leave your child wondering if he, too, will die when he gets sick. A better explanation would be “He got sick for a long time, and the doctors couldn’t fix it. Most of the time, doctors and medicine help make you better, so don’t worry.”
- Always be honest. Do not tell your child that his playmate changed houses or moved away, says Pastor Esguerra. He will eventually find out the truth—and this will cause distrust in the future.
Dealing with emotions
- Allow your child to grieve, says Pastor Esguerra. She needs to go through the entire process before she can fully heal. A child’s grieving process and concerns may vary greatly from an adult’s. She may, for example, need to be reassured that someone will still take care of her, that her needs will be met, notes Dr. J.W. Worden, in his keynote speech at the 1991 annual Association for Death Education and Counseling meeting. But most importantly, she needs to know that her feelings are legitimate, and that someone is grieving with her. Maintaining a strong front, or not showing how deeply you are grieving may confuse your child. She may feel that it is wrong to feel sad or angry.
- Do not minimize your child’s feelings, advices Pastor Esguerra, no matter how shallow it may seem, e.g. your child cries disconsolately because “no one will buy me lollipop anymore” when Lolo dies. However, do not rush in to fill the void—offering to buy lollipops, for example. The person who died and the activities that your child enjoyed with him cannot be replaced. Both you and your child need to learn to accept this.
- Also avoid saying things like “Don’t be sad, Mike is in a happy place now” because it negates your child’s emotions.
The process of grieving
- Allow your child to participate in the rituals—the wake, the funeral, etc. Encourage them to talk about fond memories with the deceased. You can also create a memory corner or scrapbooks says Pastor Esguerra, filled with pictures and mementos of the loved one.
- Play is essential to a child’s healing, says Cathy Guballa. Just because they are playing, laughing or having fun doesn’t mean that they are not mourning. Some experts say that a child cannot deal with the entire grieving at one time; they mourn in bursts.
- Remember that children (and adults) grieve cyclically. They may seem fine now, but can revisit their grief at different stages in their lives. My sister Moira was only two when our grandfather, Baba, passed away. She seemed to accept this easily, and would only say, “I miss Baba” once in awhile. But a year or so after Baba’s death, she would suddenly ask my dad and stepmom questions like, “When I’m 7, will you be dead?” or “When I’m in high school, will you be dead?” Constant reassurance from her parents that “most people live until they are very old, and when you are in high school, we won’t be too old yet. And we make sure that we stay healthy” helped Moira cope with the idea of death.
- Sometimes, a child may seem to mourn the death of a beloved pet more than that of a relative. This is a legitimate reaction, especially if the child had strong bonds with his pet. Again, do not minimize his feelings, advises Pastor Esguerra. Explain death in simple, factual terms: “Everything dies—people, animals and plants—because our bodies get worn out and they stop working.” A ritual, such as burying your pet’s body, or coming up with a list of your pet’s best traits can help bring closure to your child’s mourning.
Helpful materials you may want to read:
- Facts for Families, developed and distributed by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, on <http://www.hospicenet.org/html/children.html>
- Talking to Children about Death, Compiled from Keynote Addresses by J.W.Worden PhD at 1991 ADEC Annual Meeting, on <http://www.hospicenet.org/html/talking.html>