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Helping Children Understand Death

Article written by Ingrid Vassallo, Psychotherapist and kidsmalta.com resident expert
It may seem unusual to talk of children and death in the same sentence since in our struggle to protect them from the subject of death we render it taboo. However, in so doing, we are sending the message that we cannot handle the topic of death and therefore any questions they may have about it are left unasked or unanswered.
Although we hope and pray that we never have to talk about dying to our children, death should not be seen in a vacuum but rather, within the context of life. And just as we teach our children about different aspects of life such as relationships, love, and education so we can help them by talking about death as well. 
By the age of five, most children will have probably had some experience of death. Perhaps the death of a pet, or a dead animal they may have seen on the road or heard talk of the death of a relative.
Children also come across death in fairytales such as Cinderella and Snow White which both highlight the death of a beloved parent. Similarly, children are exposed to issues surrounding death in movies, such as The Lion King, which has very clear references to the experience of dying, death, and the circle of life.
However, at this age, most children are not capable of making sense of death, since it is an abstract concept. They see death as ‘living in some other place’. Also their level of understanding often depends on their level of development. This means that, as a child grows older, their understanding of death changes.

So how do we explain death to children?
When faced with the responsibility of explaining death to a child, the most important thing to remember is the child’s sense of security. For example, we need to break the news that a loved one is dying, or has died, it is advisable to do so in the safety of home rather than in a hospital or institutional setting.
It also helps if the child talks to a person with whom they have a loving and stable relationship. Always include facts and be honest – when you don’t know an answer to a child’s question, say so rather than make things up.
Keep it simple and do not use statements which confuse the children even further such as ‘Grandma has gone to sleep forever’ or ‘Grandma is going to a better place’. Instead, use direct statements such as ‘Grandma is dead and so we will not see her anymore.’ Reassure children you are there for them to answer and explain, as best you can, any questions they may have.
Children often need more time than adults do, to absorb and make sense of new information, so allow them time for this – they will usually ask questions or bring up the topic again after a while.
Of course, a child’s first question very often is, ‘So, where is grandma now?’ Again, it is best to answer honestly and to be true to your beliefs whether it is ‘In heaven’ or ‘I don’t know for sure’. Children express grief differently from adults, so do not expect them to look sad or to cry.
Their grief may instead, show itself in unusual or difficult behaviour – this is often a result of their inability to deal with, or talk about their feelings. Just let them know that, while disruptive behavior is not acceptable, it is ok to feel sad, confused and angry.
What helps children most when there is a death in the family?
Keep the child’s life as ‘normal’ as possible after the death of a loved one. For example, if the child’s parent dies, it is much better for the child to keep living in the family home as this provides them with a sense of comfort and security. Taking them out of their home and thereby disrupting their routine, will mean another loss for the child so, if circumstances allow it, minimize their losses for the time being.
Participating in funerals in whatever way they feel most comfortable can help children make sense of death. It also helps them in the grieving process of accepting that a loved one is no longer alive and to provide closure through an opportunity to say goodbye. 
When to seek help?
Most children adjust emotionally within a year of the loss of their loved one. Some, however, develop problems that require professional attention. Things to watch out for include long-term sadness, denial of the death, refusal to talk about the topic, lack of sleep, loss of appetite and feelings of guilt. As someone who is familiar with the child, you are best placed to identify behaviour that clearly indicates the need for professional advice. 
Death is part of life, and rather than protecting children from the reality of death we should provide them with ways to cope with it. Talking about death is necessary and potentially much more beneficial to children than creating an aura of mystery and fear through our adult conspiracy of silence. It is worth remembering that children react to the response of the adults around them. If a child sees that grief and sadness are overwhelming the adult, they may be scared of such intense, negative emotions.
Likewise, an adult in denial may confuse a child and limit their grieving process.  It is important therefore, that the responsible adult acknowledges and addresses their own emotional needs so that they can offer a secure and loving environment for the child to deal with death and its aftermath. 


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