For Caregivers ~ Do’s and Don’ts in Discussing Death with Children
For children, when they experience death of a parent, grandparent, sibling or best friend, we often are ill-equipped to know how best to help them. In my work as a psychotherapist and grief/bereavement counselor, I share the following fundamental tips with caregivers.
- Don’t use euphemisms. For example, don’t talk to the child about death as sleep. Research has found that children become afraid to go to bed, because they worry they might not wake up.
- Don’t avoid the reality by saying the deceased has “gone away.” At ages 7/8, children can understand that death is universal, irreversible, and has a cause.
- Don’t say God has taken the child because God could become something to fear/hate. If the family believes in an afterlife, the child needs to understand that concept for this explanation to be helpful.
- Do understand that the child may show anxiety for some time. This may look like sadness, irritability, acting out, mentioning death in conversation at odd times, difficulties sleeping, upset stomachs or headaches. School performance may also decline for a time as children may have difficulty focusing on their work. All are normal coping patterns and part of the grief process. Show love and understanding. Have the child see a pediatrician if symptoms are not diminishing.
- Do be honest. Don’t tell lies about how the person died and keep explanations very simple. The child may well need you to repeat them over the course of time. An exception to this would be if the child is young and will not understand the cause of death or it seems inappropriate to tell the child the cause of death, e.g. death by addiction or suicide. If you are unsure what to say because of the circumstances, speak with a grief counselor.
- Do let your child cry. Crying is healthy and releases hormones and energy that promote healing. Telling your child to stop crying or “be strong” will only result in emotions being released in other ways – often through anger.
- Do let your child know that family and friends are also sad. If the child is school age, do contact the school counselor and the child’s teacher and let them know what has happened so they can give the child extra support, time, and attention.
- Do talk about the deceased person. The healing is in the talking and the memories – difficult and happy ones.
- Do create traditions to celebrate the legacy of the deceased person. These can be simple or on a larger scale. Let the child be a part of the creation of these.
- Do consider that a bereavement group for the child may be helpful after a sufficient amount of time has passed. Explore the options in your area.
- Do find books to help the child process what has happened and their emotions. Your local librarian can provide you recommendations.
- Do remember your own self care. Parents/caregivers are often so quick to get the child help. Remember, you can only help the child if you are getting the support you need to navigate this extraordinarily complex journey.