As parents, taboo issues are something we want to avoid talking to our children about as much as possible. But the inevitability of death makes it a topic that requires much-needed attention and careful consideration, especially if a death is faced in the family. By stepping in and educating your child about death from the get go, it also prevents wrong and misleading information that may be misaligned to your family’s beliefs to be passed on to your children.
Often, children start to have some knowledge of death from the age of two onwards. As they attend school and develop cognitive maturity, they not only acquire biological, but also psychological understanding of life and death. Thus they are often curious about the concept of death, but are rarely given the opportunity to learn more about it.
Dr William Yule, emeritus professor of Applied Child Psychology of King’s College, London, points out in the book, How to help a child cope with grief: A book for adults who live and work with bereaved children, that children often see and hear what adults mistakenly trying to protect them from. Though bereaved adults often comfort themselves with the thought that children cannot understand death and dying, children are instead often abandoned to a great sense of confusion, knowing that something serious has happened, but not equipped with the full understanding of it.
Here are some ways to help your child through the grief of loss.
- Let someone who is emotionally close to the child to break the news. If it involves more than one person, ensure that the information to be shared is consistent and congruent to avoid confusing the child.
- Be honest. It is alright to admit it if you do not have the answer to all of the child’s questions.
- Assure that death is not due to punishment. Some children think that the deceased died to punish them of their bad deeds by leaving them for good. This makes them feel guilty and blame themselves for what happened. Adults should assure the child that what he has done did not cause the deceased’s death, and that there will be continued love and support from the remaining people in his life. According to Dr Atle Dyregrov, Director of Centre for Crisis Psychology in Norway, there is no “right” way for the child to react after being informed of a death in the family.
- Allow the child the space and time to digest the information. Some children may have very strong emotional outbursts while others may not react at all.
- Allow for the child to participate in farewell ceremonies or rituals if he wishes to and is able to understand what is taking place. It is helpful to first discuss with him what to expect during the ceremony. Accompanying adults should also address any fears or concerns the child may have during the process and take them out should he be too overwhelmed.
- Contact the child’s school to inform of the death in the family for teachers to monitor and counsel the child, if need be. Parents can also consider informing the child’s friends of possible changes in the child.
- DO NOT delay in breaking the news as it gives room for the wrong people to pass the wrong information to the child.
- DO NOT attempt to be emotionless when breaking the news. Some children were afraid to express their own emotions when adults keep a straight face when talking about the deceased. They feel as though it is wrong for them to be feeling sad and tend to hide their true emotions.
- DO NOT provide the child with more information than he needs. Simple factual replies are less likely to overload or confuse the child. After sharing, check on the child’s understanding and clarify any misunderstandings immediately.
- DO NOT enforce a certain feeling or emotion on the child.
- DO NOT place unnecessary responsibility or pressure on the child. Sometimes, adults tend to encourage children to be strong by telling them that they are “big boys and girls” or that they have to be strong “for the deceased’s sake”. This may push the child to grow up quickly and may even cause him/her to resent the deceased for “making” it happening.
- DO NOT excuse bad behaviours out of sympathy. It is common for parents or teachers to allow bereaved children to misbehave due to what they are going through. However, this may make the child feel more alone while encouraging future misbehaviour. Extra care must be taken to provide a firm structure to restore order in the child’s life.
- DO NOT tell the child what needs to unlearned later. Some parents tend to tell their children that the deceased has gone on a long journey, or has gone to sleep. Some children may then develop a phobia of sleeping or even refuse to allow their parents to sleep as they associate sleeping with dying. Furthermore, children will eventually learn of the truth behind the deceased’s death as they grow up. Covering up what happened may make them feel that they were being lied to and they may lose trust in their parents.
This is an extension of an article found in Singapore’s Child magazine Issue 178, titled “Saying Goodbye Forever”, written by Raewyn Koh.