Coping with the loss of a loved one is difficult for most adults, so imagine how hard the process must be for children. How do we explain death and help them get through it?
How much a child understands about death and how they grieve depends on a number of factors including their age, stage of development, life experiences, temperament and personality. While recognizing that an individualized approach to helping children with the grieving process, here is some general information about how children of different ages process death.
• Young children, ages 5-6 years old have a hard time comprehending death. They only understand the world in literal terms. Try to keep explanations very simple and avoid euphemisms, such as the deceased loved one “went away” or “is sleeping” as it might confuse or scare them.
• After age six and up until approximately age ten, kids begin to grasp the finality of death, even if they don’t realize it’s natural for every living thing to die at some point. They also might not understand why death occurs and may think that they have some control over it. At this age, it is best to provide children with accurate and honest explanations.
• As children become teenagers, they begin to understand that all life ultimately comes to an end and there is no avoiding it. At this point they begin to have questions about their own mortality and vulnerability. The best thing to do as a parent is to encourage them to grieve and express their feelings.
Regardless of how old they are, there are a few suggestions that all parents should follow when trying to help a child deal with loss. Experts urge parents to be honest and encourage questions, even if they don’t have all the answers. Create an atmosphere of comfort and openness and send a message that there is no right or wrong way to feel. If you have spiritual beliefs, it is okay to share them with your child as well.
The choice of whether or not to have your child attend a funeral or memorial service is a personal one. If you do allow them to attend, explain beforehand what they will encounter. Share information on religious customs that might be practiced at a service as well. Many parents worry about exposing their children to their own emotional grief, but permitting them to see you in pain shows them that crying is a natural reaction to pain and loss.
While most children do not grieve in the same manner as adults, it is important for parents to watch for signs that a child needs help coping with loss. If your child’s behavior changes radically, seek help. Doctors, guidance counselors, and mental health professionals can all provide assistance. You can also research books and websites for additional tips to help your child manage their grief.
Jamaica Hospital offers a comprehensive Palliative Care Service that assists patients and their families, including children, by providing psychological support and bereavement counseling. For more information, please call 718-206-6919.
The content in this newsletter is intended to be informational only. Please consult a medical professional before adopting any of the suggestions on this page.