Death is something that we will all have to deal with in our lives, and unfortunately many adults are faced with how to help children cope with death. Children react to loss and death differently to what adults do, and the way they manifest their grief can also be very different to how others do.
Most children will deal with death for the first time when a beloved family pet dies, and it is important that you understand how to help children cope with death from a young age. Dealing with the death of a pet is traumatic, but dealing with the loss or death of a family member, especially if it is a parent or sibling is a completely different experience to which most children do not know how to react. Not having a parent or another adult around to help them understand and cope because they are dealing with their own grief will contribute to their shock and confusion.
Children of different ages will also react differently to death, depending on who it is that has died, the circumstances surrounding the death, their prior experience(s) with death, and what happens after the death. Children will look to the adults, especially parents, for answers, comfort and support, and if this is not forthcoming, especially in the case of a traumatic death, the confusion and fear becomes even greater.
The younger the child, the more confusing death is and because they may not really understand what “death” means, they could become frightened by the reactions of adults to this phenomenon. Preschoolers especially may be under the impression that death is just temporary, that the person will come alive again, as they have seen cartoon characters in the movies or on television do. Children between five and nine years of age begin to see death closer to how adults see it, yet do not believe it will never happen to them or anyone close to them. Although they may experience grief more like adults, they may also believe that their angry feelings or unpleasant wishes may have caused that person to die and that they can “wish” them back to life again. In understanding how to help children cope with death, it is important that they be told that their thoughts cannot cause anyone to die and that they are in no way responsible for the person’s death.
Signs Of Grieving
Everyone reacts to death differently, and children are no exception. They may display aggression, have temper tantrums, have difficulty at school, become more dependent or independent, tell inappropriate jokes, or take on the mannerisms of the dead person, especially if it is a close family member because they are unsure of how to deal with their feelings or express their grief. When trying to figure out how to help children cope with death, it is important that you remember that a grieving child mostly needs reassurance, love, patience and the touch of a loved one.
These are some of the ways in which a child may express their grief:
- Anger and irritability
- Acting much younger than their years for an extended period or reverting to earlier behaviors such as baby talk, bedwetting, or thumb-sucking
- Boisterous play
- Depression or a loss of interest in daily activities and events
- Denial, shock and confusion
- Excessively imitating the deceased, asking questions about them or making repeated statements of wanting to join them
- Fear of being alone or of the dark
- Frequently complaining of physical complaints such as headaches and stomach-aches
- Humiliation or guilt over personal failing to prevent the loss of life
- Inventing games about dying
- Loss of appetite and/or concentration
- Not being able to sleep or having nightmares when they do
- Profound emotional reactions such as anxiety attacks, suicidal thoughts or chronic fatigue
- Sharp drop in school performance or refusal to attend school
- Withdrawal from friends
One of the most important facts of how to help children cope with death is the need to understand how they think about death and what has changed for them in their lives because of this death. Knowing these facts will not give you all the answers to the questions that children may have about death, but they will definitely help you to better understand how a child experiences the grieving process. It is completely normal for some children to feel immediate grief, or to hold onto the belief that the family member is still alive during the first few weeks after the death, as this may be a short-term coping mechanism, but it becomes a problem when it persists in the long term.
How To Help Children Cope With Death
Helping children to cope with death and loss, whether it is as a result of a natural transition due to old age or a traumatic death due to a natural catastrophe, an accident, or murder, children basically need adults to teach them some basic lessons of the heart. This we can only do if we reflect on how we ourselves have dealt with death in the past; how our families handled the subject of death when we were children, how death was handled in places of worship, and which methods were helpful or hurtful to us.
Once we have answered those questions and have our own emotional houses in order we will know better how to help children cope with death. By digging deep into our own emotions, psyche and understanding, we will be in a better position to be attentive and creative in our responses to our children’s grief. This is necessary to ensure that we are not numbed to their pain and do not over-identify with them or loose our sense of appropriate boundaries. As much as we would like to, we cannot take away our children’s pain at losing a loved one, but our sense of helplessness need not prevent us from reaching out in love, as the power of love can achieve wonders in helping them to cope.
Some important information to bear in mind on how to help children cope with death is the following:
Inform them Immediately
A child should be told immediately when someone in the family has died, by someone who is close to them, and in familiar surroundings. This is crucial so that they do not hear it from an unrelated source, such as the news. Use a normal voice, not a hushed whisper when informing a child about a death, as whispering could give them a spooky feeling.
Give as honest an explanation as possible within their limits of understanding. Use concrete terms when explaining; do not use euphemisms such as “Granny has gone to sleep,” “departed,” “passed on,” “expired,” as young children interpret information literally and will think that their grandma is just asleep and will not be able to go through a grieving process. Say “Granny has died,” and if they do not understand the term “died,” then explain it to them as best you can.
Do Not Shield Your Children From Death
Some people believe that how to help children cope with death is to shield from death by not talking about it in front of them, not letting them attend funerals and avoiding the questions their children may have as to where so-and-so is. This is not good, and is actually counterproductive, as children need to grieve as much as adults do. Explain to them what will happen at the wake or the funeral, and ask them if they want to attend or not; never force a child to attend.
Discuss Their Emotions
One of the best ways how to help children cope with death is to acknowledge their grief and feelings of confusion, anger or however they manifest it. They need to be able to share their emotions and talk about how much they are going to miss the individual who has died, as this is the only way they will learn to deal with death. Give them a chance to talk about any fears they may have, or feelings of guilt that they caused the death or were the only one to survive a tragedy.Explain to them that it is very normal to have those feelings, and tell them that you understand, and that you are experiencing some of the same feelings.
This is also a great time to discuss alternative, creative ways of dealing with those emotions, and you can suggest some of the following methods:
- Write letters to the person who has died
- Write poetry honouring what the person meant
- Make a “Memory Album” containing drawings, pictures and thoughts
- Plant a tree in their honor
- Write or tell stories about the person who has died
- Playing with clay
- Build or create something in memory of the person
- Singing or playing a musical instrument
- Creating a play
You can even get involved in one or more of these activities with your child or children, as creativity is a wonderful method of how to help children cope with death. Also remember to encourage the child to go outside and run around and play, as being active is a good way for them to get rid of all those feelings.
Be Ready For Plenty Of Questions
Children react differently to death, and even though you may have explained things to them, young children especially many take along time to understand this thing called death and may continue to ask the same question again and again. This is because they are trying very hard to make sense of all of the information and the reactions of others, their own sense of loss and strange feelings of anger, hurt and confusion.
Listen to them, validate their feelings, answer only the questions they ask, as honestly and patiently as you can. Reassure them that you will be available to listen if they want to talk, and when they are, be there for them.
Keep To Regular Routines And Schedules
One of the best methods of how to help children cope with death is to keep as close to their regular routine as is humanly possible. This will allow your child to feel more secure and in control as the routine is familiar to them. If you need to go out to make arrangements or attend to various things, try to get a person with whom the child feels most familiar to stay with them, such as a grandparent, favourite aunt or uncle.
Reaffirming Relationships And Reassurance
A child may become very clingy and dependent after a death, especially if it is the death of one parent, and may experience fears of being abandoned. This may lead to tantrums when the remaining parent needs to go out, and an excellent way of how to help children cope with death of one parent and negate these feelings is to give them extra hugs and cuddling, which by the way will be good for you too.
Some children may also suddenly become very dependant at night, and letting the child sleep with you for a few weeks or leaving a night-light on in their room, or giving them a cuddly toy to sleep with will go a long way to comfort them.
Remember that is it good to find the right way to help your child deal with death in a holistic and caring way right from the word go, as this will stand them in good stead later in life. Dealing with the death of a grandparent, especially one that they did not see regularly is a bit removed from them, so they may deal with it a bit easier, but do not assume this. Dealing with the death of a pet, a friend, a parent or a sibling is always traumatic for a child, no matter how the individual died, as the deceased was part of their everyday life. It is important that you find out the best way how to help children cope with death so that they are not scarred by the occurrence.