By Bonnie Baker Cowan
Six-year-old Finley and I have had a few conversations about death. First of all, he concludes, more frequently than I like, that since I am “very old,” I will probably die soon. That's his thinking at its most intuitive and typical of his age. But we've had more complicated conversations too. I told him once about my partner dying in the hospital and at the moment of death, the lights went out in our house, just before I received the call from the doctor. When his eyes grew wide and he asked why, I tentatively explained that it was energy and you cannot kill energy. However, he processed this answer quietly for a few minutes, and then informed me of his own conclusion. “I think it was his soul passing over, grammie.”
He's obviously a brilliant thinker as only a proud grandmother can confirm. But the bottom line is that talking about death with a child is less complicated and uncomfortable for them than it probably is for us.
Their concept of death changes and becomes more realistic as they reach school age, when they understand that death is permanent. Unless they have had to deal with the loss of someone close to them, however, death can remain an abstract that happens to other people or to characters on television.
When it does happen in your family, it's important to address the concerns and grief of a child and a grandparent often offers the safe haven where children can ask questions.
It may take some time and patience. A child may ask the same question several times over a long period of time before he can process the answer and fit it into his world. And the information may change in meaning as he matures intellectually.
First of all, it's important to be open to questions and honest in the answers. Phrases such as “going to sleep” create confusion even for a child as young as four. Avoiding the dialogue entirely may leave a child of any age with the impression that death is something not to be discussed and therefore feared. It's still possible to be straight with a child while at the same time reassuring her that her mom or dad is unlikely to die as well. And, it's okay to say “I don't know” when you don't.
That reassurance at a time of loss is very important. A child often feels fearful that she will be abandoned by someone else close, such as a parent, or sadly, a remaining parent. Allow them to talk about their fears. Young children may need lots of hugs and the comfort of a favorite stuffed animal or blanket and a light left on at night.
Helping them to grieve is also essential. Children often move on to something else that captures their interest very quickly. It doesn't mean their grieving is over; it just means they grieve in short periods of time. Some may even delay the reaction and grieve weeks or months later. Talking about the person who has died, reminiscing, looking at photos, telling stories and drawing pictures will help them work through their grief and create a positive memory of the person. And it helps them say goodbye.
Encourage them to return to normal activities. Resume the activities you enjoy together, such as bedtime stories, helping with homework, enjoying mealtime, going skating or baking cookies, so the child feels secure. Returning to their regular play activities will help them dispel any anxiety they may feel and give them a sense of control.
Don't expect children to express their feelings with words necessarily. Their anxiety may come out in actions such as acting out or refusing to go to bed or to school.
Share your feelings too. Children are sympathetic creatures and talking about your own grief will help them with theirs. If you let them know it's okay to be sad, you are teaching them to handle loss in an honest and healthy manner.
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