Children develop thoughts and ideas about death at a very early age. They develop awareness from TV, cartoons and just by listening to conversations, but often their reactions and beliefs are developed by the way the subject is treated by the people close to them. Sadly far too often it is through whispered conversations and evasion of the subject that many children learn early on that it is a subject to avoid.
Children are not just short adults; they are unique individuals who are trying to make sense of everything happening around them. They understand loss in varying degrees but do not feel it any less intensely even if they do not express it in a way we would expect. Don’t expect them to mourn in the same way as an adult. While they will grieve and be sad at the loss, children are very much concerned with what is happening in their world right now. It is important that they are allowed to be children. There should be no guilt or blame attached to this behavior, but with the understanding that at any time, they may need comforting or answers to questions.
Healthy understanding and therefore acceptance, comes through talking, explanations and giving honest answers to questions at a level appropriate for their age. It is important to be open and honest, although children quickly learn whom they can or cannot talk to about their ideas and thoughts. Often a child will not ask what they want to know directly and it is up to us to discover what is behind their question and respond in an appropriate way. Be honest; if you don’t know, say so and perhaps try to find an answer together.
It is important that children are not excluded. They have also lost a loved one and will need to grieve in their own way. They shouldn’t be forced into certain behaviors as everyone reacts differently. No one more than children, who can often seem indifferent, should be allowed to participate in a way that helps understand.
Use words that don’t ‘mystify’ death; talking about ‘passing away’, ‘going to sleep’ or other similar expressions can confuse children and lead to other problems such as a fear of falling asleep. A child will only take in what they are capable of understanding. Using the words ‘death’ and ‘dying’ helps take the ambiguity out of your words and so the child will gain acceptance far more easily.
Most importantly, don’t hide your grief from a child. They learn how to react to situations from the adults in their life and knowing it is natural to grieve is a lesson that will help them now and in later life.