The loss of a loved one is difficult. Grief is hard to process and death is not easily explained. Children ask a lot of questions which are often too deep to answer when the adult is reeling from their own loss and questions. Parents are often tempted to shield their children from the knowledge of a death in the immediate family. There are certain guides, although etiquette seems a little strict, which can help you determine how to help your child through this process in age-appropriate ways.
Psychological studies show that children should be given the opportunity to express their grief. A study by Shaw (1999), a bereavement, trauma and loss specialist, suggests that parents explain death to children in simple, age-appropriate terms. She encourages parents to avoid trying to suppress the childís tears or expressions of grief. Give them the choice to attend the funeral of other memorial service. If children choose to attend, parents can prepare them beforehand for what they may see and hear. Let them know that they will experience the grief otherís show. Parents may also need to reassure children that it is alright for them to resume normal daily activities as well as to play and laugh again. The following are suggestions on advising children of death and the funeral at different age levels.
Infants and toddlers cannot understand death, but they do feel the loss of the one who was there to nurture and care for them. By ages two, three and four, there is still little understanding of the meaning of death. The death should be shared with the child by attempting to explain what has happened. Because funerals and memorial services are somber occasions, itís hard for a toddler to be still and understand what itís like to mourn. A church service could be a difficult place for the child and for those present who are grieving. The wake, however, or a gathering, is the perfect place to take the edge off by having a child there. A happy bubbly child is often the perfect salve for an open wound.
A child five, six or seven has developed a feeling for loss. This empty feeling, however, it is not easy to grasp and can be fleeting. When questions arise, answer them in simple language. Let them know a death has taken place, who has passed and how their death will impact those closest to the deceased. Their presence at the funeral home and the funeral service usually proves to be good for them and those around them. Clinical studies show that denying a child the experience of sharing his loss through emotions may result in adjustment problems later.
A child of eight or nine has a capacity to grasp life's mysteries. They will remember the experience vividly. Don't avoid letting them attend the service. They have emotions too. Emotions need to be expressed. Often a childís presence and their emotions aid the older people around them. This is also true for a youngster ten, eleven or twelve. They also have the emotions of love and a deep feeling of loss. They know what death is. They will want to be helpful. This cathartic move is normal and helps resolve their own feelings of loss. Include them in the arrangements and service and explain what to wear with respect to their attire.
The adolescent may want to shelter their feelings of guilt. Guilt is not easily understood. They may refrain from emotions or expressions. Clinical studies show that teenagers often have more intense grief than any other age group. Encourage the teenís friends to share their grief and attend the service. This gives the support they need. They want to think of themselves as adults, treat them as such but try to surround them with peers their own age.
Each child is a unique individual. Age, personality and social and religious background are just a few of the influences which compound this uniqueness. Certain guidelines, however, can still be covered when discussing death. First the child as an individual should be the main factor considered. Although you should not force a child to participate in the funeral or memorial service, they should be consulted and encouraged to participate. Because all children are different, all children (just like all adults) will react differently to how they deal with death. Many will want to share the experience and want to know how you are feeling. This is normal Ė if only adults were so ready to ask questions. Donít hesitate to share how you feel, what you miss most, when you miss them the most and how you are going to deal with this loss.. not just today but weeks from now.