One of the hardest realities to explain to a child is death. Especially when it is the death of a parent, sibling, beloved grandparent, close friend or even a favorite pet. Parents generally try to protect their child from things that might harm or from things that are too difficult to understand. But unfortunately sometimes this is not possible. When faced with this reality here are some ideas to keep in mind.
Don’t lie. Whatever is said, make sure it is completely honest. Telling a child that a person went to sleep for a long time does not help and can confuse them later when they do find out the truth. Don’t say anything that would cause future deteriation in the relationship.
Keep it simple. Long winded explanations are selfish and do not help a child. They only hear the first couple of sentences anyway. Remember the teacher on Charlie Brown and how the kids just tuned her out? This is not a time to have a child tune out during the conversation. Be clear and simple instead.
Answer only the question they ask. Parents are sometimes tempted to reinterpret the child’s question or answer more then asked. Resist the urge and instead repeat the question they ask for clarity by saying, “You want to know…” followed by their question. If they say yes, then answer it simply; if they say no than ask a different question.
Don’t expect an emotional response. Children need more time than adults to process what has happened because this is a new experience for them. So if the child seems unemotional at first, don’t worry, just give them time to process what has happened. The child may also have inappropriate emotional responses such as laughing instead of crying. Allow them the freedom to respond as they know how. Laughter maybe the only way they know of releasing stress and tension.
Explain as often as requested. A child may come back several hours or days later with the exact same set of questions they asked at first. They are doing this to process better what has happened. Don’t refuse to answer a question because it has already been answered. Rather, be consistent with responses and answer the same question in the same manner. Again resist the temptation to over explain. They are not asking the same question because they need more clarity, they are just trying to understand what has already been said.
Invite them to ask more questions in the future. As a child ages and has more experience to draw from, they may have additional harder questions later. While it may have seemed like they are processing the grief well shortly after the death, problems may surface several years later as they learn more about life. Look out for disruptive behavior at school, defiant behavior at home, or destructive behavior with friends as warning signs that a child may have more grief to process.
Get help not only for the child and parent. Grief of close family members can take well over a year to process for adults. For children, they seem to postpone aspects of their grief for later and sometimes it is not fully processed until they are adults. Parents need help first to better help their child by example. A child will be far more likely to ask for help in a productive rather than destructive manner if they have witnessed their parent asking for help. The idea of being strong for a child and not getting help may be counterproductive.
It is a tough to have a conversation with a child about death. Before beginning, write out some bullet points to say. Then review the above suggestions rehearsing answers to some of the anticipated questions. But if a child is resistant to the conversation, don’t force it. Be patient and sensitive to their time table. This will go a long way in strengthening the parent/child relationship.