It is said that: ‘on the day we are born, we begin to die’. Take that as you wish, but death is a tragic event nonetheless.
What do we say to a child when a parent dies? As adult children when a parent passes away, it is life-altering. For growing children, the impact will vary. Grief is what is typically experienced after a loved one dies. Grief is a process, and the grieving process for children must be closely monitored, beginning with that first discussion.
When a parent dies, the surviving parent faces many new responsibilities of caring for the children alone. Coping with your own grief and feelings of loss, you must now help your children do the same in healthy ways.
Because children and teens understand death differently from adults, their reactions may be different. They may say or do things that are puzzling to you. Whatever their reaction, you don’t want to rush them through their grief, or expect adult reactions before they are capable of thinking as adults.
Talking with your children about a death is particularly difficult when you are dealing with your own grief. Children will often ask the same questions as an adult will: “How could something this unfair happen?”
Your love and support are critical at this time. They learn how to deal with grief by watching you. It is important to know that if you are feeling too overwhelmed to speak with your child at this time, have someone else explain it to them and/or help you with the discussion.
When you are ready, you can still have these same conversations with your child. They probably will need to have the discussion more than once, anyway, and it will matter to them because it comes from you.
Everyone must understand four basic concepts of death in order to fully grieve and come to terms with what has happened. This is not to be confused with the six stages of grief. As adults, we struggle with death. Don’t assume what your child already knows based on their age alone. Instead, ask them what they understand about death, and then you’ll know what they need to learn.
- Death is irreversible. It isn’t like the cartoons when characters die and then come back. Children who don’t understand this may believe it is temporary. If children don’t understand the permanency of death, they won’t be able to mourn. Mourning is painful and requires people t adjust their connections to the person who has died. The essential first step is that your child understands that death is permanent.
- All life functions end at the time of death. Very young children view all things as live, like that mean old rock that ‘tripped’ them. We tend to reinforce this when we say to them that their doll is ‘hungry’ or has to go ‘pee-pee’.Or, we use the expression that the car ‘died’ as an explanation for coming home late. Sometimes, we tell children that their loved one will be ‘watching over them’. That is confusing to children who don’t totally understand death. It may be frightening to young children. A child may know that a person can’t move after they die, but think that’s because the coffin is too small. They may know that people can’t see after they have died. Your child might believe that is because it’s dark underground. When children understand what life functions are, they can also understand they end at death. Only living things have a beating heart or need to breathe or feel pain.
- Everything that is alive eventually dies. Children may believe that nothing ever dies. We often reassure them that we will always be there to take care of them. We tell them not to worry about them dying, wanting to shield them from the grief. Children may think that everyone close to them may leave them and die, too, when someone close to them dies. Children struggle to make sense of death. They may assume that a parent has died because of something bad they did or didn’t do or bad thoughts they may have had. This leads to feelings of shame and guilt, and they may not want to talk about death. That would expose their bad feelings, in their mind. When you talk to your children about death, let them know that you are well and are doing everything you can to stay healthy and safe. Tell them that you hope to be around for a long time, until they are adults. This is different from telling children that you or they would never die.
- There are physical reasons that people die. This is not to be confused with the cause of death. Children must understand why their loved one has died. If they don’t, they are more likely to come up with explanations that cause guilt or shame. The overarching goal is to help children understand what has happened. Offer a brief explanation, using simple and direct language. Take your cues from your children, and allow them to ask for further explanations. You can leave out the graphic details and you should leave them out, especially if the death was violent.
******Many condolences go out to the family and friends of the globally-beloved Kobe Bryant, a basketball legend, and his lovely daughter, Gianna-both gone too soon.
To the family: Stay strong. You still have a purpose here. God Bless You and God Bless us ALL!