Unlike adults, children do not understand the concept of death. It can be a confusing and frightening time for them if they have witnessed the death of a loved one. Parents of young children hesitate talking about death as they have many concerns that keep them from being honest about it:
Can my child process this information?
Will it make them fear death, or losing their loved ones?
Are they too young to know and understand what death is?
How can I explain it to them?
How will it impact them?
Will it rob my child of their innocence?
The belief that children may not understand or remember certain experiences such as death is not always true. When they lose a pet or a loved one, children as young as five years old can understand that something is different. Even if their parents and other adults do not directly address the issue, they may overhear what others are talking, or try to make sense of the situation through what they see on television, or in the movies.
Grieving is an important part of coping with a loss. It can help a person come to terms with the loss, accept the importance of the person they loved, and gradually overcome their pain and acknowledge what they meant to them. Children, no matter how young, are likely to pick up cues from around them; they may see what's going on (the funeral, the body, or certain post-death rituals) or hear snatches of conversation that give them a vague sense that something out of the ordinary is happening.
Not knowing what they are dealing with can make it more confusing and sometimes even scary for the child. In the case of a death in the family, the child may also develop wrong ideas (fear of losing other adults in their life, fear that they will die suddenly, or may die when they go to sleep at night) unless a trusted adult takes the time to explain it to them.
Explaining death to a child
It may not be necessary to introduce the idea of death to a child out of the blue. But if the child asks you about it because of something they saw or heard, or due to the death of someone they knew, don’t be alarmed. Children hear about death and understand it in their own ways, so it’s unlikely to be an alien concept to them. Here are some ways to explain:
Use your discretion to offer as much information as you think the child is capable of handling.
If the question takes you by surprise, be honest with the child and tell them you may need some time to answer it.
Explain it in a way you feel comfortable with. In the case of younger children, parents may like to say that the person has become a star, or is with the God, has gone to the heaven, or is watching from the sky like an angel. You could say, “This is how I understand it, and others may have different beliefs about it too.”
If there has been a death of a loved one, you could tell them when the death happened, and tell the child that the person will no longer be with the family. Don't share other details such as the person’s health, their suffering in their last days, or the unexpectedness of their death, or descriptions of how they died. The details may make the child develop fearful thoughts about themselves or their loved ones dying in the same fashion.
Don’t just give them information; allow the child to speak about their fears. Ask them what's going on in their mind, how do they feel or if they are worried about something.
Avoid using vague words or euphemisms such as ‘they are gone’ or ‘they have gone to sleep.’ Tell them that death is irreversible, “No, we may not get to see them again, but we do have our memories and photographs of the time spent together.”
Some children may also get anxious believing that they or their parents may die too. Therefore, it’s important to reassure them that you, as a parent, are taking care of your own health, and theirs too.
When the child comes to you asking about death, ensure that you don’t shut down their expression by saying, “don’t talk about it”, “don’t worry”, or “you are too young to understand this right now.” Avoid lying to the child or giving them false hope by hinting that the loved one is somewhere and will be back in some time.
Helping children deal with grief
Grieving is a personal process and we all have different ways of coming to terms with our losses. As a parent, you can help your child deal with the loss in a way that they feel most comfortable in. This may include:
Asking them to share their emotions and fearswith you.
Involving them in the rituals, ceremonies or prayers that your family follows.
Giving them time and space to deal with it: Some children may want to take a day or two off from school, or not want to take part in certain activities (particularly those that they enjoyed with the person they’ve lost) for some days. Some other children may want more activity or distractions for some time. Both of these are perfectly okay.
Helping them get back to some sort of routine: This may be important if the deceased played a significant role in the child’s day-to-day activities. Tell them what changes they can expect, for eg., if the child was sharing a room with their grandparent, then you may have to explain that they won’t be sharing the room anymore, or offer the child to share your room for a bit. Or, if the grandparent were at home to welcome the child after school every afternoon, let them know that someone else will be receiving them after school henceforth.
Creating your own symbols or rituals: This could include talking about the person they’ve lost, or going through their photographs when they miss them. You could also create a photo album, make a painting, write a short story or create a token of love and remembrance.
A child whose parent, sibling or a close friend has died may need additional support to come to terms with their loss. They may need some extra attention while they familiarize themselves with a new routine and deal with the uncertainty that comes with the loss of a dear one.
When to seek help
Some children may be irritable, aggressive, defiant or sad immediately after they lose a loved one. These behaviors may be the child’s way of dealing with intense or difficult feelings, and of not knowing what to make of a strong experience. But after the first three weeks or so, if the child shows no signs of feeling better, or consistently displays these behaviors in a manner that affects their daily functioning, you may need to seek help:
Not eating well, drastic loss of weight
Being withdrawn; actively avoiding social interaction
Bedwetting (particularly if they had stopped bedwetting already)
Crying too much, talking too little
Avoiding certain people or activities that may remind them of the person who died
To seek help,you could call a helpline or consult a child psychologist near you.
This article has been written with the help from Dr Nithya Poornima, clinical psychologist, NIMHANS; and Sonali Gupta, clinical psychologist.