Dimond And Sons

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Children and Death
Perhaps one of the most difficult situations parents ever face is telling their children that a loved one has died. We are afraid children won't understand death or that they'll be crushed emotionally. Most likely, we don't know when to tell them or what to say.

The fact is that children can and do handle death well—often better than the adults around them. Like adults, children need to come to terms with death and the grief that accompanies it.

Telling a Child About Death
When a death occurs, someone close to the child like a parent or grandparent should explain as soon as possible that a death has occurred. News of a death travels quickly, and parents who delay telling the children run the risk that they'll hear about it from friends. By trying to avoid hurting children, you could expose them to a bigger shock later.

Once you've told your child that someone has died, you need to explain what will happen next. Talk about the wake or visitation if there will be one, about the funeral ceremony and about burial.

Your child will likely have many questions. What a child will want to know depends on his or her age and any previous experience with death. Generally, preschoolers don't understand that death is final; they many ask, "When is Grandma coming back?" After all, cartoon characters on TV are killed every week, only to return again. Children at play say, "Bang, you're dead," knowing that the "dead" person can get up and walk away any time.

Between ages five and ten, children come to understand that death is final—but they may believe only old people and accident victims die. If a relatively young person dies, children in this age group may demand to know why. Past the age of ten, children begin to understand that death is part of the natural order of things, and that people die at all ages for a number of reasons.

It's also important to answer all questions as simply and honestly as possible. Don't say, "Grandpa went to sleep forever." The children may be terrified of falling asleep and never waking. Don't say, "God loved your daddy so much, He called him back to heaven." Your child may be angry at God or fear being taken. If a child asks, "Why did Uncle John have a heart attack?" and you don't know, just say so.

Children should also be reassured that, although a parent has died, the other parent will still be here; that the child will still live in the same house, sleep in the same bed and go to the same school.

However, children have some naive ideas about death that you should address without being asked. Children often conclude that they somehow caused the death. They may think, "I was bad, so Mommy left," or "I wished my sister would die, and she did." Tell your child it's not his or her fault that someone died. If a loved one—especially a brother or sister—died of a disease, reassure the child that he or she is healthy and won't die of the same disease.

A Child's Reactions to Death
Children are people, and in many ways they react to death like the rest of us. They may feel shock or deny at first that death has occurred. They may become angry and blame others for the death, or become angry at the person who died for leaving. They may feel guilty for not being "good" to the person who died, and they may become depressed.

Children can also react to death in surprising and erratic ways. They may greet the news of a loved one's death with nothing more than a shrug, then express their grief in subtle ways later. They may regress and begin sucking their thumbs, wetting the bed, or otherwise acting like infants. They may become hostile with playmates, or they may express their grief and anger by treating their toys violently. They may imagine or pretend that they are dying. They may exhibit curiosity about the hearse, casket, vault and grave. This is just normal curiosity. In short, there is no "normal" or correct way for children to grieve.

Helping a Child Cope with Death
Like adults, children need to grieve, to accept that death has occurred and get on with their lives. Your child will take cues from you, so don't be afraid to express your own grief. Cry and let your child cry with you. Don't tell your child to "be brave, don't cry." This is a sad situation, and the child needs to express his or her sadness.

Talk to your child, and encourage him or her to talk as well. Show the child that it's okay by talking about the deceased. Even if your child is too young to talk about the death, you can still share your emotions. Hugging and touching will comfort young children who can sense anguish in the family, even if they don't understand what has happened. Children surrounded by sadness need to be assured that they are loved.

It's a good idea to take your child to the funeral, but don't force him or her to go. A funeral serves a number of psychological purposes for children as well as adults. Children, like adults, need to share their grief. The funeral provides a focus for grief, allowing people to come together and express their feelings. Funerals give meaning to the experience of death and can be an important lesson for children.

Children should receive a careful explanation of the funeral before they decide whether or not to attend. If the decision is to attend, then the parent must provide an even more descriptive explanation of what will happen at the funeral.

If you try to protect your child by keeping him or her away from the funeral, you will likely make the child feel shut out or rejected. Children need to understand on an emotional level that death has occurred. A funeral is an important step in confirming that death has occurred, and people who don't attend the funeral of a loved one sometimes suffer from unresolved grief later.

Remember, your child's relationship to the deceased hasn't ended—only changed. After the funeral, keep pictures and other reminders of the deceased around to spark conversations with your child. This will help form a new set of emotional bonds with the person who died.

It's very difficult to say when a child needs counseling to overcome unresolved grief. The grief process is not a series of neat, separate stages; it is more like an emotional rollercoaster ride. Feelings of depression or anger or sadness can come roaring back months after the death.

However, if a child seems beset by prolonged anger, denial, sickness or listlessness, it is a good idea to seek counseling. Ask your pediatrician or clergyperson to suggest a child counselor who has experience with grief therapy. Your funeral director can also help guide you to qualified counselors.

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