Mary Paula Walsh
How to explain the mystery of death to a child? We often use as an excuse that they are too young to understand (whatever their age)! As a result of this attitude, we either allow them to be around and involved in dying and death without any discussion or explanation or we deliberately hide from them all evidence of what has occurred, sometimes even omitting to tell them!
Of course children can understand death, but to different degrees, depending on age and past experiences of many kinds.
Opinions vary as to how children of different ages are affected by loss, death and bereavement. Just as with adults, young people should be treated as individuals. Most parents or guardians will have a sense of how the death has affected a child. Every child, no matter the age, is affected by the death of someone close to them, or close to their parents or carers.
The skill is to gauge at what level the child can understand, and most of that comes from listening to the child herself. The child will ask, if the climate is right. Listening well to the question is the clue to giving the right answer, though of course, there is no ‘right’ answer, only an appropriate one.
The right climate is dependent largely on the attitude and state of adults and other children around. If adults are fearful, the child will pick up the fear.
Until recently, death was very much a part of life for all the community. Children, even toddlers, trotted in and out of wakes when dead people were laid out. They were brought to funerals and burials and little was hidden from them. They learned so early that death is part of everyday living, that they never knew any other way of looking at it. This does not mean they were not at times upset in all the ways adults are – shocked, angry, sad, guilty, fearful etc. But they were able to cope with and express these feelings more eas ily, and adjust better to life again, after a time. Because a lot of these customs which included children are fading out in society it does not mean that we should abandon them. Parents can bring up children however they wish. No one will prevent a parent from involving a child in death, dying, wakes, funerals, burials and grieving, though they may advise against it and even preach intellectual and psychological superiority.
Tiny children, babies, are affected most by the effect the death has on those close to them, especially of the mother or main care giver. In the tragic event of the death of the mother, the effect will be immeasurable. The baby will sense something terrible has happened. Even if they are pre verbal, I believe they can be told in very, very simple language and reassuring tone that mother has gone and they will be OK. Everything possible should be done to keep continuity of care and carer, and also of familiar places and things. Adults and older siblings should try to restrain fearful and panic-like behaviour around the small child.
As children get older they gradually begin to understand death. Toddlers can see death as temporary, that the deceased will come back after a time. Later, around school age, they begin to ask difficult questions. From the age of about ten, children begin to realise their own mortality and the inevitability of death for all humans. This may lead to a lot of anxiety, especially if one parent or sibling has died already. They may fear that others may follow. This is particularly common when the deaths have been sudden.
In early years, i.e., the first two or so, children’s learning of attachment and separation and sense of security is established for life. This can be seriously shaken or affected by the death of the mother, main carer, father or other close adult or sibling. The first experi ence of a death will remain with a child for life, and will affect how they grieve and cope with subsequent deaths. It is very important that adults do not hide their emotions, especially in front of babies or small children. It is actually very important that their first expe rience of death is allied with the experience of adults grieving ‘well’. They therefore learn ’from the cradle’ that it is OK for adults, women and men, to cry and be sad. They also need to see adults stop crying and carry on with their normal life.
Generally speaking, children will ask all they want and need to know about the whole subject of death, dying and bereavement. That is, unless they pick up, or sense, that it is a taboo subject in the family. As there is a lot of denial in our society, which results in taboo, older children can pick it up outside the home, from peers, media, etc.
The way to deal with questions is:
* Always answer the question.
* Always tell the truth.
* Never answer more than the question implies, unless you strongly sense the child is really asking more than they are able to verbalise.
No child who is old enough to ask a question is too young to get an answer. If they ask at a very awkward moment, tell them you’ll answer it later, ‘at such-and-such a time’, and be sure to go back to it as promised. They may need a little attention when you do answer, so wait until you have some space in your day. If they repeatedly ask the same question, remember that it may be a different question for them each time, and they may not have the sophistication of language to ask it differently. Or they may be upset about the death and want attention about it, time to grieve, to talk over and over again about for example, grandad and how much they miss him. Do not try to shield children from death by avoiding their questions. Death is a part of life, a natural part. Don’t project your fears on to them. They are resilient, intelligent and intuitive. They frequently cope much better than adults, if the subject is handled well by the adults around them.
Always tell the truth
Hiding or evading the truth or the reality, or pretending about it in some way, is the cause of great confusion for the child. If we are afraid to tell them the truth, remember it is our fear. Of course, what is ‘truth’ or ‘reality’? That is a question!
As each culture and family have their own ideas about all sorts of issues – politics, sex, religion, education, etc.- and want to pass it on to their children, so they will have their ideas about dying and death and life after death, and likewise pass them on to their chil dren. So tell them what you know and you believe, as directly as you feel they are able to understand. If some of the questions seem gruesome or frightening to you, remember they may not to the child.
Never answer more than the question
Children are usually direct and simple in their communication. If they ask questions, answer only what they have asked or, in some circumstances, what you believe them to be asking, nothing more. Do not turn the questioning into an excuse or occasion for a ‘sermon’, or complete explanation of the whole subject of mortality, death, and the life hereafter! This is mainly because the child will usually ask exactly what she is ready or able to hear. An answer with more than she is ready for may do damage. Secondly, she may not listen to any of it if you go on for too long!
No questions – no answers?
Some children may not ask anything. They may wish to avoid the subject altogether. This is usually because they want to deny or forget what has happened. They are afraid of the bad feelings bringing it up will evoke in them, or they are afraid of ‘breaking down’.
Give them ample time and opportunity to talk about their grief. Let them see you griev ing, tell them how you feel occasionally, and thus create the right atmosphere for them to allow themselves to grieve.
Small children usually communicate simply and directly. Do the same. Do not use euphemisms when explaining or talking about death. Children can be very literal.
Of course similes are very useful, especially comparisons between death and the seasons of nature, the leaves falling in the autumn, and flowers fading and dying after they are picked, with new life, new leaves and buds each springtime.
Involving the children
Children should be encouraged, but never forced, to participate in all the activities and rituals concerned with dying, death, the funeral and committal. None of this is inappro priate in itself for a child of any age. What can be upsetting for a child is the behaviour of some adults in these situations.
If you think you are shielding a child from pain or upset by keeping her away from any of it, you are mistaken. You are teaching her that there is something too fearful or terri ble for her to see. What she will imagine will almost certainly be far worse than any of the reality.
The child, you must remember, is also bereaved, having lost a grandparent, parent, sister or brother, or whoever. Apart of course from cases of unexpected death, children should be involved in looking after the dying person, or visiting them if in hospital. A small child can carry in a drink, turn the radio on, or whatever little job is appropriate to their age. All the family can, in many cases, be present when the person dies and stay with them for a time afterwards to pray, or sing to them, whatever is your custom, and grieve of course, and say goodbye.
Remember the child will learn about grieving for life from these past experiences. If they see adults crying and not falling apart, they will realise that this great healing release is acceptable and normal in such circumstances. If all the adults put on a stiff upper lip, the child will learn that that is the ‘correct’ thing to do.
It is important that children do not spend too much time with adults who are fearful of death, mortuaries, dead bodies, funerals, burials or cremations. If you cannot be with them yourself, try and find a suitable adult who is also close to them. Find one whose attitude to these events and rituals is accepting and open, so that they can be an example to the child and also answer their questions in a light and casual, though serious, way.
Recently, a little boy of five went to see his first dead body, that of a beloved granny, in the coffin in the church. He commented,”She does look like Granny, but she doesn’t really look like Granny. I suppose that’s because her soul has gone away.” He had been well prepared. He was quite matter-of-fact. He then ran off to see all the people he knew in the church.
It is not usually a good idea to send a child away to stay with relatives or friends at this time. Small children, especially if this is their first experience of death, may imagine and worry that someone else at home will die while they are away. They may imagine all kinds of horrible and frightening things are happening, that they must be protected from. After one loss, they are being deprived of other security ‘props’, such as their daily rou tine, familiar bed, toys, pets, etc., not to mention other family members, neighbours and their own peers and friends.
Children who do not see the remains of the deceased or attend any of the rituals will find it all the more difficult to grieve ‘well’, to ‘recover’, get back to ‘normal’ living, and make new relationships.
They should be given every opportunity to say goodbye, both before the death (if possi ble) and in the various ways ceremonies and rituals provide afterwards. Saying goodbye is an extremely important part of letting go, and therefore of grieving.
Children’s ways of coping
One of the main ways children cope or deal with grief is through play, just as they work out a lot of other problems and fears this way. It is their form of therapy, and should be encouraged. Often they will re-enact illness, playing doctors and nurses, funerals etc., without any prompting. Don’t be alarmed if they repeat these rituals over and over again, even months or years after the event. If they are not doing it in this way, and if it is felt that they are not coping well with the death and grieving, they may need more time to get started with it. If you suggest playing with small children after a bereavement, they will eventually (maybe not immediately) suggest games connected in some way to the illness, death or funeral. When they do, they should be allowed to create the scene and lead the game. Agree with anything they suggest, go along with whatever they want to do. This is their therapy.
This also helps them to cope with feelings of helplessness associated with death. It par ticularly helps with children’s first experience of it. They can have power now over what happens, in the re-enactment, and power over adults!
The death of a beloved pet is very often a child’s first brush with death. Do not underestimate their grief. A pet can be a true friend (and not only to a child) and must be griev ed. Also, this dying, death and surrounding ritual will act as a model, in a way, for all future deaths, and the child’s attitude to death.
Some children, particularly only children, who are bereaved, derive great comfort from meeting, sharing experiences with, or reading of other children who have had similar experiences. It helps with the feelings of denial, isolation and loneliness. I recommend How It Feels When A Parent Dies by Jill Krementz, either to children to read themselves, or to parents. It is a series of accounts, written by children, of the experience of a par ent’s death.
We all have different ways of remembering those who have died. Remembering can be very painful at first, but it is a ‘sweet sorrow’. Later, memories are a wonderful gift.
For children, events like the death of a loved one are a really important part of their char acter and personality formation. It is helpful for them to have memories kept alive, through ritual, photographs, anniversaries and in other ways.
However, their lives must not be made gloomy, maudlin, or morbid. Children, like adults, have to get on with living and eventually ‘let go’. A balance can be kept with occasional and appropriate ‘memorials’ at times such as Christmas, birthdays and other anniversaries.
Another little boy I know, Brian, always brings something belonging to his beloved dead sister with him on special occasions. He wore her socks for his First Communion. Children are very creative and will invent not only their own ways or remembering, but of grieving, letting go and getting on with their lives.
Counselling and Therapy
Parents often ask how they can judge if a child needs professional counselling. The signs that a child is ‘in trouble’ after a bereavement are quite similar to those in adults, but of course some are different. The main signs are: disturbed sleep or bad nightmares, lack of concentration and poor school grades, certain repeating illnesses, under- or over-eating, anxiety, exaggerated attention-seeking, anger, and school phobia. If any of these persist it may be due to the effect of the bereavement on the child, but of course, there may be another cause.
Professional counselling/psychotherapy can be sought in the following circumstances:
1. If any of the above “symptoms” persist beyond c.6 months to 1 year, after checking with the G.P.
2. If efforts to give the child time, good listening and the permissive type of play I have described are not helping.
3. If the child for any reason has not a good trusting relationship with the remaining parent, e.g., in the case of a “difficult” divorce or separation.
4. It the child is worrying about upsetting the parent/s further, e.g., when a sibling has died.
Remember, children, though very impressionable and vulnerable, are also extremely resilient and full of common sense. They usually find a way – sometimes in spite of well- meaning help – of grieving, letting go and getting on with their lives.
Sometimes the child’s teacher or doctor may be sufficient, depending on the way the child is behaving. Sometimes, however, for any number of reasons, counselling/psychotherapy may be sought.
There are therapists who through specific training and/or experience work particularly with children, I believe in most cases they do it best. I personally very often end up see ing the parent rather than the child, even if the parent requests that I see the child. If the parent can grieve well and come to terms with his/her loss, he/she will have the space to listen to their child and allow their grieving to happen. It is, after all, a natural process, and will proceed naturally if given space and time and the right/appropriate climate.
Mary Paula Walsh is Director of Turning Point