Helping a Child Deal with Death

By Nancy Boyd Webb, DSW, BCD, RPT-S, Hospice Foundation of America

What can an adult say to a child following the death of a beloved family member or friend? Children often ask probing or painful questions. For a grieving adult, it may seem daunting to have to explain death to a child, especially when there are no simple answers. The following guidelines may make this process easier.

First: It is okay to say you don't know the answer to a child's question. You can even say, "No one knows for sure, but this is what I think."

Second: Consider a child's age and ability to understand complex ideas. Many experts believe children do not have a mature understanding of death until about age eight or nine. Younger children may think that being dead is temporary, and that the deal person will return in the future.

Third: Use precise terms when talking about death. People typically refer to "losing" a loved one. Children may interpret this literally and assume that the person can be found. You should also explain that being dead means that the body has stopped working and that it cannot be fixed. It no longer feels cold or gets hungry. The good side of this is that a dead body does not feel any more hurt or pain.

Fourth: If the child asks whether you will die, respond that everybody dies someday, but that you hope to live to do things with the family for a long time.

Fifth: Remember that children cannot tolerate long periods of sadness. This means that they may want to play and participate in their usual activities. This does not mean that they didn't love the person who died, nor does it mean that they are being disrespectful. It is okay to permit or encourage children to have fun like they did before the death.

Sixth: Changes in the child's behavior or patterns might be signs that the child is experiencing problems associated with the death. In these instances, it's appropriate to obtain advice from a specialist in child bereavement counseling.

Many school-age children benefit by participating in bereavement groups with other children who have suffered losses. Children hate to be different from their peers. In a group, they discover they are not alone.

Although you may not know what to say, don't avoid bereaved children. Tell them that you love them and, although you may be sad or crying, you will always love and take care of them. Also, learn to express your own grief. You'll find the strength to carry out these suggestions, and you and the child will feel better as a result.

*This article is from the "Helping Young People" special issue of HFA's newsletter, Journeys.

by Nancy Boyd Webb, DSW, BCD, RPT-S

©2008 Hospice Foundation of America. All Rights Reserved


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