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Parents often ask me how they should deal with the subject of death in a child that their children know.
All children will one day be confronted with PAINFUL REALITIES like DEATH, DANGERS, DISASTERS, and DIVORCE.
Regardless of which painful reality confronts your child your approach should be the same. Parents should always BE HONEST, MODEL HOW TO DEAL WITH FEELINGS, GIVE THE CHILD A CHANCE TO TALK ABOUT IT, AND EMPOWER YOUR CHILD IN EVERY WAY YOU CAN.
We all want to protect our children from the pain of dealing with death–either the death of a loved one or thoughts about their own death-but we can’t. Death is an inescapable part of life.
It’s a good idea to start “death education” early, just as we start teaching about sex early. And, as is true for sexuality education, the most important thing we can do is to show our children that each of us is an “askable parent”.
Whenever a child begins to ask questions about death–usually prompted by exposure to a death in an animal or person–expect questions like, “Will I die too?” or “How do we get it alive again?” or “What happens to Puppy after we bury him?” Parents should answer such questions honestly imparting a bit more information than the child is ready for. Information beyond the child’s understanding may not get processed but the child realizes that death is a subject that can be talked about.
Bring up the subject on your own. When the family watches the news on TV or a movie in which someone dies, start a discussion. The library has many books for young children dealing with death.
A chld’s understanding of death is developmentally determined. Before the age of 6 or so children usually think of death as reversible. For example, they may think grown-ups can still communicate with the deceased.
All children at one time or another will express a variation on one of these worries: “Am I going to die?” “What will happen to me if Mommy or Daddy dies?” Parents have to deal with both issues honestly but humanely: “Everybody dies but you won’t die for a very long time. There will always be someone to take care of you.”
The next question will be, “Do I really have to die when I am old?” Once again, honesty: “Every living thing eventually dies but you won’t die for a very long time.” It can take a child quite a while to process difficult or new information, so expect to repeat such reassuring statements as needed.
The toughest task you have as a parent is when a child has died or is dying.
You may expect to be asked something like, “Why is Jimmy dying? He’s not old.” Your child really needs information. Painful as it is to hear and to say, tell your child that sometimes children get so sick that they cannot be made better again and they die. Go on to explain, “Dying at this age is very rare, what Jimmy has isn’t catching, you are not sick and you are not dying.”
Be sure to add how terrible this makes you feel. Cry, if you can, and hug your child. Give the child plenty of time to express his or her own sadness. Explain to your child how people talk to someone whose loved one is dying. Ask your child if he or she can think of anything the sick child might like to have.
Of course use your family’s religious beliefs about heaven or an afterlife to help your child deal with the death of a friend. But, trust me, what will help your child the most is talking about the death.
Encourage children who are old enough to visit the sick friend and attend the funeral. Help the child memorialize the friend. Plant a tree, make a contribution in the child’s memory, have the children draw a picture of their friend, or make a card for his parents.
Your child can learn a valuable lesson from you by hearing what you say to the sick child’s mother. “My heart goes out to you and I don’t have the words to express how badly I feel.” To reach out we have to do only four things: look the person in the eye, touch the person, tell the person how sorry you are, and ask how you can help.
P.S. If you are a parent who is suffering the anguish of the death of your own child, reach out for The Compassionate Friends (www.compassionatefriends.org or 877/969-0010) an organization that can really help.
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