Death is a difficult enough matter for adults to understand. Explaining death to a child can be one of the hardest things that we have to do, especially when we are dealing with our own grief.
To children, death is an extremely abstract concept, and the finality of it is frightening and confusing. The following are some ways to help.
Use direct and concrete language: It is best to use language that is simple and concrete. For instance, you can say something like, “Uncle Bob died; his body stopped working.” Also tell them that the deceased does not feel pain, or eat or walk anymore. Remember that language should be simple and direct.
Confusing emotions: Children will have many confusing emotions surface after the death of a loved one. They can feel abandoned by the deceased, especially if they lost a close family member, like Mom or Dad.
Children might think that the deceased did not love them enough to stay alive, which can rouse feelings of anger, blame and sadness. Some kids can feel fear and anxiety at the thought that they too might die at any time.
Symbolic play: Young children, especially pre-school and children under 8 years old tend to use play as a non-verbal way of processing information and gaining mastery over overwhelming events.
Children might engage in games about death, which might appear morbid. They will often reenact the funeral proceedings or create imaginary death games, and ask the same questions repeatedly.
Return to daily schedules: Returning to a familiar schedule as quickly as possible can help them normalize their days by returning the predictability to their day-to-day life, which can also bring back a sense of control.
Honesty: Be honest with your own grief. It is okay to let your child know that you are also sad over the loss. Do not try to hide or mask your grief or make light of the situation.
Respect the child’s grief: If the loss the child is experiencing is that of a beloved pet, respect that it is a tremendous loss nonetheless. Pets are not replaceable.
Memorialize the deceased: A Memory Book is a healthy way for children to remember the good times they had with their loved one. This is a healing transition from viewing death as a loss to remembering the beauty of the person’s – or pet’s – life.
Kelly Nicholson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist with Psychological and Counseling Associates of the Lowcountry, LLC in Bluffton.