Death is a loss which should be shared with all members of the family, children included. In our understandable heartache children and their feelings of concern, worry or not understanding may be overlooked. Children need help sorting out their emotions, even more than adults. When we discuss death openly with children, at a level within their understanding, we enable them to live life more fully.
Prior to losing a loved one it is advisable to speak about the topic of death and dying with children. Death and it's meaning should be approached gently, indirectly and tenderly. An explanation might include trees and leaves and how long they last. Point out the diversity of the natural world such as insects, butterflies, and snails. Once all those creatures moved and sometimes we find them no longer moving. Start with non-threatening examples and proceed slowly, step-by-step according to the child's ability to understand. For every child the concept of death undergoes a continuous progression with their maturation.
How do we tell children about the death of a family member?
It is advisable to relay the sad news in familiar and comfortable surroundings. What is said, is as significant as how it is said. The tone of voice- warm, sympathetic, and kind-will communicate feelings more completely than any specific words. Speak simply and accurately, be consistent in what you say. Children need to talk, not just to be talked to. Try to hear not only their words but their non-verbal communication as well. Allow them to reveal their fears and anxieties. Children don't usually have the same verbal filters that adults have developed and they may speak more openly about their emotions. Do not misinterpret natural curiosity as morbid or bizarre. Don't be surprised if after informing them of the death they want to go back to playing or change the subject entirely. Children may not be able to understand or absorb the information all at once. Take their lead and respond when they ask further questions or demonstrate chances to talk and understand the death more deeply.
Should the child attend the celebration of life?
Celebrations are a rite of passage, an important occasion in the life of the family. Like other members of the family, children should have the privilege of expressing their love and devotion and to say goodbye to a significant person in their lives. Many children are discomorted by unfamiliarity with the guests, rites and setting of a funeral or life celebration. Explain in advance approximately how the ceremony will flow, where they will be sitting, what will be expected of them and what they should say and do. They may just be encouraged to say "I'm sorry for your loss" or "Thank you for coming". No matter how comforting the life celebration may be children should not be forced to attend. If apprehensive young family members prefer not to attend, gently suggest that together you could visit the cemetery, crematorium or other final resting place at another time.
Following the celebration
Just as children may not be protected from the realities of the death so they should not be excluded from the grief and mourning in the following weeks and months. Notify your child's school, daycare and other care facilities about your loss. Children may regress in school, do less well in their activities or not be able to concentrate or focus on key activities. Consider a grief support group where children may express their feelings with professionals and other young people their own age. Children often worry about upsetting their parents and may not want to increase their parent's sadness choosing to hide their own feelings or worries. Children may be able to speak more openly to objective professionals. They may also feel less isolated when they share their feelings of loss in support groups with other children experiencing similar life events.
Acceptance of death will help us and our children start to build a bridge to healing - with things that are important - memory, family, friendship, and love. Most important for us and our children is the knowledge that life continues despite pain. Grief is a strange mixture of joy and sorrow-joy to be alive and sorrow to have life diminshed by the loss of the one you loved. It is helpful to find ways to celebrate the lost loved one on a regular basis. Speak regularly about the lost loved one, re-create their shared rituals and traditions, make their recipes, appreciate their music , read their favourite stories, say their favourite sayings and continue to value their wisdom and the legacy they have left behind. By creating ways for children to remember their loved ones, the child will focus on and value the wonderfully happy times they shared together.
Excerpted from Children Mourning, Mourning Children by The Hospice Foundation of America
Many of the strategies above apply equally as well to adults. This is a time of great loss, sadness and uncertainty for the whole family. Look after yourself so that you are more able to look after those around you. There are never any words that can capture the depth of feelings we as humans experience when losing a loved one. Moving toward the mourning and grieving one small step at a time, one day at a time, may help come to terms with the loss and the new path ahead. Love, understanding and patience are the way through.
The Bereaved Families of Ontario offers support services for children and adults