Talking to Children About the Loss of a Loved One

Talking to Children About the Loss of a Loved One (PDF)

2022 • 20 Pages • 8.63 MB • English
Posted July 01, 2022 • Submitted by Superman

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Summary of Talking to Children About the Loss of a Loved One

Talking to Children About the Loss of a Loved One EXPLAINING DEATH WITH KINDNESS AND SENSITIVITY “Children are no strangers to grief. Even infants and toddlers react to loss. When younger children are shielded from death, silence does not take away their pain; it only increases their sense of isolation and abandonment. We need to acknowledge their fears as real – they are! Above all, we must utilize teachable moments to talk about death in reaching out to children in this, the most profound and far-reaching changes of their lives.” - Earl A. Grollman PAGE 2 EXPLAINING DEATH TO A CHILD Gone are the days of thinking that kids don’t need to talk about death. A child that you care about is grieving the loss of someone they love. In addition to navigating your own grief, you now have the difficult task of helping this child begin to heal. It is important to remember that children, like adults, develop at their own rates and have their own ways of expressing and managing feelings. Some may ask questions about death, whereas others may appear to be unconcerned about the death of a family member. Children need to be told as soon as possible by someone close to them, that their loved one has died before they hear it by accident from someone else. Whoever that trusted adult is, they need to offer non-judgmental support, reassurance, affection and guidance. There are no magic formulas around grief. This book will help you answer such questions as “How might children be included in funeral rituals?” “What are children’s reactions to the loss of a loved one?” “How do children and teens view death?” “What are the signs of grief in young people?” “How can you help them cope?” IMPORTANT C’S FOR EVERY GRIEVING CHILD Care: Assure the child that they will always be cared for Changes: Expect that there might be many changes including eating and sleeping patterns Contagious: Assure them that cancer is not contagious Cause of death: Let the child know that they had nothing to do with the cause of death Communication: Encourage questions and discussion at all times QUESTIONS CHILDREN MIGHT ASK Be Prepared Children often have lots of questions about death and what happens after someone dies. Below are some that they might ask and it helps to be prepared. You will find suggestions to help you answer these questions in the pages ahead. Why do people die? Can I catch cancer? Was it my fault? Do we have to move? Who will take care of me? What happens after death? What happened when my Mum died? Who will help me with my homework? Was she in pain? Will I die? What did the doctor say? Can I go to the cemetery? Will my sad feelings go away? Will I forget my daddy? Does Gran live at the cemetery now? PAGE 3 POSSIBLE EMOTIONS OR BEHAVIOURS For children who have been aware of the death, they may have already started working through some of their feelings and fears. This doesn’t necessarily mean the grieving will be any easier. There is no way to keep a child from hurting. If it doesn’t happen at the time of the death, it will happen later on. They may feel isolated, lonely and wonder if their feelings are normal. Accept their reactions without judgment and reassure them that whatever they are feeling is normal. You will have time to address things again after your child has had time to process the initial trauma. PUT EMOTIONS INTO WORDS “I know you're feeling very sad. I'm sad, too. We both loved Grandma so much, and she loved us, too.” Denial: “I don't believe it. It didn’t happen.” Hostility: “It’s the doctor's fault.” “Don’t say anything bad about daddy.” Guilt: “She got sick because I was naughty.” Anger: “Why did she leave me?” Fear / Worry: “Who will take care of me now?” Anxiety: “I think I have cancer.” “I feel like Mommy did when she died.” Clinginess: Younger children might become clingy and not want to sleep alone. Regression: It is not uncommon for children to return to younger behaviours or activities such as thumb- sucking or bed-wetting. Repetition: Children tend to come back to the subject repeatedly, so patience is required when dealing with a grieving child. Changes: Nightmares or trouble sleeping may occur. Lack of appetite or overeating may also take place. PAGE 4 SUGGESTIONS FOR PARENTS Ways to Help Many adults find it difficult to talk about death to children and it can be tempting to shield them from pain. However, children need a clear but honest age-appropriate explanation of death. You will know how to respond to your child based on the questions they ask. It may be helpful to have many short conversations. Keep in mind that it is common for grief to resurface later on, even long after the death. Here are some suggestions that you may find helpful when talking to a child of any age. • Share your own grief with the child. Expressing how you feel can encourage kids to share their own emotions. They learn by modeling the behaviour of significant adults in their lives. • Provide verbal and physical affection. Reassure children that they will continue to be loved and cared for. • Encourage kids to talk about their emotions and suggest other ways they can express themselves, such as writing in a journal or drawing a picture. Some children may want to write a letter or create a memory box or a book. • Reassure them that it is normal for their sadness to come and go, just like the ups and downs of a roller coaster ride. • Routines are important, so try and get back to them quickly. Help the child return to school and to their usual activities. • Continue to set limits on behaviours and activities. • Encourage children to spend time with friends and other trusted adults. • Reassure kids that it is never disloyal to the deceased to feel happy and to have fun. • It often helps to give the child something that belonged to their loved one to help them feel connected. • Most children like looking at pictures of their parent during happier times and hearing stories about them. • Talk about your family's religious or spiritual beliefs and rituals surrounding death. • Seek out an age-specific bereavement support group. You may want to speak with a grief counselor, child psychologist, or other mental health professional if you are concerned about a child's behavior or if you yourself need support during this time. USE SIMPLE, CLEAR WORDS “I have some sad news to tell you. Grandma died today.” Pause to give your child a moment to take in your words. PAGE 5 SOME DO’S AND DON’TS PAGE 6 Do’s Don'ts Reassure your child that sharing their feelings is natural and healthy. Accept their reactions. Don’t use expressions like “It was her time” or “He is in a better place.” Explain that there is no such thing as a silly question. Answer them honestly and continue to encourage their questions. Don’t force the child to attend the service or funeral. Explore why they do not want to attend and do not make them feel guilty. Help your child remember their loved one. Recall and share happy memories and stories. Look at photos together. Don’t put a time limit on your child’s bereavement - or your own. Use the words “death” or “dying.” By using direct language, you’ll help them understand that the death of their loved one is permanent. Don’t hide your grief. Seeing you grieve will let your child know that it's normal and healthy to cry and feel sad after the death of someone that is important to them. Make sure children understand that they are not to blame for the death. Don't avoid talking about the person who died or sharing your memories. Prepare your child for what they will see at the funeral home, cemetery or service. Although, this may be difficult, encourage them to attend the events of the day. Don’t use expressions like “You are the man of the house now” or “Be strong, be brave.” These words can make children think they cannot show their feelings or put undue responsibility on them. Provide reassurance that the surviving parent or others close to them are available to talk to them. Never compare death to sleeping. HELPING CHILDREN OF ALL AGES Reactions and Ways to Help Each child is different in how they understand and respond to grief. This will depend on the child’s age, maturity and developmental level. They will react according to their ability to understand death. If we allow children to talk to us about death, not only do we give them information they need to hear, but also these conversations will prepare them for any future crisis or difficult situations they may experience down the road. We can also make it easier for them to talk to us if we are open, honest, and at ease with our own feelings. PRESCHOOLERS (3-5 YEARS OLD) At this stage children do not understand fully that death is permanent. It is their belief that people die when they are old. They do not understand that it cannot be “fixed” or “reversed.” They may think of death as temporary or that it is like sleeping, and that that the person who died continues to function or will come back to life. Reactions/How Children Cope Young children cannot always say what they mean or put their feelings into words. Their feelings, thoughts and fears will often be expressed through their actions and through their play. They exhibit what is known as Magical Thinking, which means that they believe that wishing for something will cause it to happen, such as bringing someone who is dead back to life. They may: • Become more active, aggressive, or extra quiet. They may have tantrums. • Return to earlier behaviors such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking. • Be intensely sad one moment and run off to play the next. • Ask many questions and repeat the same ones over and over. • Experience a fear of being abandoned. • Become clingy or often need to be held. • Ask questions such as “When is mommy coming home?” • Have nightmares or trouble sleeping. • Have problems eating. • Become more fearful that surviving loved ones will also die. How a Parent Can Help • Use simple, easy-to-understand words when explaining the death. “The body has stopped working and grandma can no longer eat, breathe or move.” • Ask frequently if the child has any questions and let them know you are available to them anytime. • Watch for signs of distress, including unusual sleeping habits, eating, mood, and behaviour changes. • Hold hands and hug your child during difficult times. • Encourage drawing, painting, pounding clay, using puppets, or playing with toys or dolls. • Encourage the child to run and play, or partake in any other physical activity. • It may be comforting for the child to play with gifts and toys given to them by the deceased person. • Create a memory box with items that belonged to the person who died. • Keep routines consistent, if possible. • Use words such as “dead” and “died.” Avoid saying words such as “gone” or “passed on.” • Set limits but be flexible when needed. • Give choices whenever possible. • You may have to repeat to children of this age that their loved one is not coming back to life. PAGE 7 YOUNG SCHOOL-AGE CHILDREN (5-8 YEARS OLD) Most children at this age understand that death is permanent yet some still think that death is reversible. They may believe that they are to blame or feel guilty about the death of their loved one. Although their sense of independence is growing, their parents are still their main focus and they are still quite dependent on them. Therefore, it is not uncommon that the child might worry that they will be left alone, especially after the death of a parent. Reactions/How Children Cope Children at this age observe and copy how the adults close to them are grieving. A clearer understanding of death is developing. They may try to disguise their emotions in an attempt to protect the bereaved adult. They may: • Fear that death is something contagious. “Will I die?” • Be very curious about death and ask many questions over and over. • React strongly, mixed with acting as though nothing happened. • Have difficulty sleeping or have nightmares. • Demonstrate changes in eating habits. • Be concerned about being safe or being abandoned. • Have aggressive behaviors. • Think that the person who died will come back to life. • Become anxious, forgetful or fear more losses. • Have difficulty concentrating at school. • Be possessive of the surviving parent’s time. SIMPLE EXPLANATIONS “When a person dies, their body stops working. They don’t feel cold or hot or hungry anymore.” “Uncle John died because he was very sick and his body didn’t work anymore”. How a Parent Can Help • Let them know that it is ok to cry or to feel sad, angry, or confused. • Explain that there is no right or wrong way to feel. • Encourage expression through art, music, writing or physical activity. • Help the child recall memories of their special someone. Ask them if they would like to watch family videos or to look at old pictures. • Encourage the child to continue activities that they enjoy. • Plant flowers or a tree in honour of their loved one. • Reinforce that their actions or thoughts did not cause the death. • Talk with their teachers to see how the death might be affecting them at school. • Be a good listener. • Help them to create their own memory album or box filled with pictures and other special items. • Do some activities that their loved one used to do (bake their favorite recipe, play their favorite music or sport). • Let them know that many loving adults will care them for. PAGE 8 OLDER SCHOOL-AGE CHILDREN (8-12 YEARS OLD) Children at this age are starting to socialize more outside of the family. Friends are becoming a very important source of support. While they continue to think logically, they are beginning to understand more abstract ideas. They are more likely to understand that everyone will die someday and that death is final. Reactions/How Children Cope They are now at the age where they understand how loss will impact their life and that death is forever. Many children of this age group are now able to talk about their experiences and feelings. They may: • Want to know more details about the death, what happened and how it happened. • See death as punishment for poor behavior. • Begin to have an interest in the physical or spiritual aspects of death. • Have many questions about who will now care for them, or take them to activities. • Display heightened emotions such as guilt, anger or shame. • Become moody. • Worry about their own death. • Fear being different from their friends. • Develop changes in eating or sleeping habits. • Lose interest in outside activities. • Take responsibility for younger siblings. • Resent changes in family routines or rituals. • Have difficulty concentrating on their schoolwork. How a Parent Can Help • Encourage open communication and reinforce that there is no such thing as a silly question. • Respect their need for privacy. • Plant flowers or a garden in honour of the deceased. • Encourage participation in art, music, writing or physical activity. • Do some activities that the loved one used to do to encourage reminiscing. • Support the child to continue activities that they enjoy, both physical and social. • Reinforce that you will always be available to listen to their concerns. • Keep in constant communication with the school to see if there are any changes in the child’s behaviours or grades. • Encourage them to get support from family, friends, school or religious community. PAGE 9 TEENS / ADOLESCENTS (13-18 YEARS OLD) Teens have a more grown-up understanding of the finality of death and what it means. It is normal that they experience many emotions after the death of a parent such as withdrawal, anger, guilt or fear. The teen needs to know that there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. Some want to spend time alone yet others need to be around friends and talk. Some teens may want to talk to a trusted adult who can listen without judging them. TELL YOUR CHILD WHAT TO EXPECT “Aunt Sara will pick you up from school like Grandma used to.” Or, “I need to stay with Grandpa for a few days. That means you and Dad will be home taking care of each other. But I'll talk to you every day, and I'll be back on Sunday.” Reactions/How Teens Cope Recently, a teen shared her thoughts with her school counselor. “When I let my friends see that I am having fun, they think that I have forgotten my dad and all that’s happened and that my life will go on as normal. They don’t realize that I will never be the same again. Lots of times I feel so guilty and I want them to know it still hurts.” Every child has the right to grieve in his or her own way. Some may grieve in a more public way while others prefer the privacy of their own thoughts. They may: • Try to be more independent. • Turn to friends for advice and support. • Experiment with alcohol or drugs. • Withdraw from family and friends. • Experience emotions such as guilt, regret, anger, moodiness. • Feel responsible for the death. • Want to identify with peers who have experienced the death of a family member. • Question their spiritual and religious beliefs. • Have no interest in eating or they may overeat. • Worry about their future. • Pray or practice rituals (i.e. light a candle). PAGE 10 How a Parent Can Help • Respect their desire for privacy, silence, and self-reflection. • Encourage the child to draw or write in a journal or diary. • Advise them to use social networking responsibly. • Help them discover ways to honour the deceased. • Let them know that tutoring for schoolwork is available should they need it. • Encourage them to talk to their friends, teachers, coaches, or to a professional about what they are going through. • Emphasize that no questions or fears are silly. It is important not to make light of their comments. • Encourage teens to keep a regular routine and to continue with their activities both inside and outside of school. • Let them know that they can deal with their grief in their own way. • Explore local support groups and websites that are just for teens. These can be safe outlets for feelings and good sources of support and encouragement. • Suggest that they write a letter to the person who died saying all the things they didn’t say before, as well as all the things they wish they could say now. • Encourage some type of physical activity. TALKING TO THE SCHOOL WHEN THERE IS A DEATH IN THE FAMILY It is important to share the news with people who are involved in your child’s life, such as teachers, coaches, music or sports instructors and the parents of their friends. Notifying the school shortly after the death will help teachers make sense of any behavior changes. Your child’s memory, concentration and performance at school might be affected in the short-term. Try to find out what steps the school has taken to sensitize the children in the class. You want your child to come home from school feeling supported by their peers and teachers. Since your child may be absent more than usual or find it hard to keep up with schoolwork, try to arrange for homework to be emailed or sent home with a friend. A peer tutor can also help your child if they need to work from home. Stay in touch with the teacher to be sure your child is socializing well and is not having any difficulties you might have missed. In the long term, if you are worried your child is not adjusting, seek out help from a school counsellor, social worker, religious leader, therapist or local support group. PAGE 11 SUPPORTING CHILDREN WITH DEVELOPMENTAL DIFFERENCES A SOOTHING MESSAGE Remember that you loved mommy and that she loved you very much and you can feel that love in your heart. Talking with any child about death and dying can be frightening, but it may be particularly so when the child has special needs. Kids with developmental differences are frequently unprepared for dealing with their grief, and often receive little or no special assistance through the mourning process. In an effort to protect their children, some family members or care providers mistakenly assume that kids who develop differently have little or no awareness of or feelings associated with the death of their loved one. Here are some suggestions for parents or care providers to consider when explaining about death, keeping in mind the child’s specific developmental age and learning abilities. Use real words Children with special needs often process information in a concrete and very straightforward manner. Answer their questions honestly. For example, adults should use words such as “died” or “his heart is not beating anymore.” Using phrases like, “she passed away” or “she is sleeping” or “he is in a better place” may be confusing or even scary. Prepare for the funeral If the child will be attending a funeral or memorial service, it is important to prepare them in advance. For some kids, a checklist with the day’s schedule can be helpful. (e.g., getting dressed up, driving to the funeral service, being at the funeral, driving to the cemetery, being at the cemetery, driving home.) Have a trusted adult available to be with the child during the funeral and burial in case a break is needed. Explain displays of emotions It is very important to prepare kids for the likelihood that they may see adults crying. Explain that this is how people express their love for the person who died and also their sadness about the death. It is important to prepare the child for the possibility of seeing laughter as well, should someone share an amusing story about their loved one. This will show them that it is ok to cry, laugh or show other emotions. Remember the loved one Support the child in remembering the person who has died. For example, if the grandfather who died loved trains, the parent can say something such as “When you play with your trains, it reminds me of how much Grandpa loved trains, too.” Support the child Offer the kind of support that works for your child, such as having quiet time, playing outside, or other familiar activities. Inform teachers, therapists, and counselors, so they can work with you in supporting the child during this difficult time. Be prepared that the child may regress or return to earlier behaviours after the death of an important person in their lives. One of the most important things you can do is to be present, patient, and attentive. Even if they cannot communicate with words, a hug, kiss, and your presence will provide comfort. PAGE 12 KIDS SHARING THEIR EXPERIENCES The Dougy Center, located in Portland Oregon, is a Center that provides a safe place where children, teens, young adults and their families grieving a death can share their experiences. Here is what some children have to say: PAGE 13 No one understands what I’m going through, but they think they do. I can’t talk to my parent(s) because they get too upset. Everyone wants me to talk about my feelings and I don’t want to talk. When is this “grief” going to go away? I can’t talk to my friends about this. I hate it when people tell me, “Move on.” I just want to be alone. I am mad. I am sad. I hurt. I don’t know what I feel. I wish I didn’t feel so different. FUNERALS, SERVICES AND CULTURAL RITUALS All children need to say goodbye to their deceased parent or loved one. Participating in a visitation, funeral, burial or memorial ceremony helps children feel included. It helps them understand the reality of death and see family supporting one another. It is also reassuring for children to hear stories about their loved one. It is a good idea to have a calm and caring adult sit with each child during the events of the day. They can quietly answer any questions the child might have or take them out if they need a break. Including the Children There are no rules for including children in the events surrounding a loved one’s death. A child of any age can attend as long as they are well prepared and have an idea of what to expect. Children benefit from being invited to take part in different ways. They may want to say something or have an adult read a letter or poem they have written or dictated. Perhaps selecting some music or displaying photos of their special person will also make the child feel included. Preparing children for what to expect It is important that the child knows what to expect during the days leading up to the funeral. Helping children understand what to expect will make it easier for them to cope. Letting them know that they may hear stories about their loved one, or see others cry, laugh or be silent can be helpful. Make sure that the child knows in advance that the casket might be open and that they have the option of viewing their loved one or not. Remember to use age-appropriate language when explaining what will happen before, during and after the events of the day. Giving children choices Once the child has been informed, they can be given the option of attending or not attending the memorial service, viewing, or burial. They should never be pressured into doing something out of their comfort zone. If they choose not to attend, offer to tell them about the service or perhaps have it video or audio-taped so they can watch it later. At the cemetery Children are naturally curious about burying a body. They need an explanation of what to expect and then to be given the choice of attending or not attending the burial. Kids like to be included in rituals and can participate by handing out flowers, or by writing a letter or drawing a picture, which can be placed on top of the casket. PAGE 14 Cremation INCLUDING THE CHILDREN “Bobby, we are going to have a ceremony to honor Uncle Paul. Is there anything special you’d like to do to say goodbye to him?” EXPLAINING FUNERALS & RITUALS “Lots of people who loved Grandma will be there. We will sing, pray, and talk about Grandma's life. People might cry and hug. People will say things like, 'I'm sorry for your loss,' or, 'My condolences.' You can stay near me and hold my hand if you want.” Cremation can be hard to explain to children, so be sure that your explanations are in language that is suitable to the age level of your child. Reassure the child that there is no pain, because once a person is dead, the body does not feel anything. Keep in mind that you should avoid using words that may cause alarm such as burn or fire. Here are some suggestions on how to approach the process of this delicate topic. The term “grandma” will be used to describe their loved one. “Grandma’s body will be placed in a casket and brought to a special place that is called a crematorium.” “Then Grandma’s body will be placed in a very hot room, until her body turns into soft ashes, which are like dust.” “The ashes are collected and placed in a decorative box or urn. The urn can be buried or kept in the crematorium. We can also keep the urn with us at home. We may decide to scatter her ashes in a place that was special to Grandma.” Allow the child to make a choice about whether or not they will participate in the funeral, memorial, or scattering of ashes. PAGE 15