Children become aware of death in a variety of ways early in life, in the real world and in the fantasy world of television and movies. Because these two worlds are so different, it can confuse a child.
In the real world, a pet or family member may die. Children, who are in the room when the evening news is on, may see all kinds of deaths that can be very disturbing.
Children also are exposed to death on television shows, movies, and cartoons. Often these make-believe deaths are violent and not a natural part of life. Children can become confused by what they see on television. For example, an actor who died on one program may appear alive the same day on another show.
Preschoolers think being dead is like sleeping.
The preschooler thinks that death is similar to being awake and asleep. She sees death as reversible. Therefore, it may not seem sad to her. Preschoolers think that only older people die. Others believe that the dead are living elsewhere and waiting to return, perhaps as a baby. They are concerned about the “living dead” being able to breathe, eat and getting cold.
Once the preschooler realizes the loved one is not returning, she may immediately seek a substitute. When told of her mother’s death, a 5-yearold asked whether the mother was an angel now. Then she promptly asked her father when he was going to get her a new mother.
Children take what is said literally and have trouble understanding such religious concepts as Heaven, the hereafter, eternity or being with God. If told their pet is having a good time in Heaven, the young child can’t understand why she can’t go to Heaven, too. One child thought that the body in the casket would be without a head or limbs because that was what the word “body” meant to her.
Parents can help children cope with death and express grief.
Parents cannot shield their children from grief and loss, but they can help them cope with it. Preschoolers may express their grief through:
- anger and fear because they feel abandoned
- feeling depressed
- withdrawing from activities
- physical symptoms, such as loss of appetite and other digestive problems
- simply blocking it out or forgetting it
- becoming detached, isolated
Take advantage of opportunities in everyday life to talk with children about death.
When young children express their interest in dead plants or animals, take time to discuss it. Bring up the subject if children do not. Give them plenty of time to tell you what they know and how they feel. Correct their misconceptions, even though they may be too young to understand.
The actions of others, especially parents, affect children’s response to death. When a brother or sister has died, for example, the child may feel abandoned not only by the deceased, but also by the grieving parents. If the sibling died after a long or painful illness, surviving children may become hypochondriacs in order to get the attention of parents who are not interacting with them. Children of all ages apparently feel left out when there is a death in the family —even when parents think they are communicating.
Here are some suggestions to help children cope with death:
- Remind children of the times when they were kind to the dead person —to help reduce guilty feelings.
- Give each child some individual attention. Children grieve in unique ways.
- Do not force or allow children to compete with the one who has died. Do not say, “Now that your father has gone, you must be the man of the house.” “Your sister would have become the best gymnast. Now, you have to win all the gymnastic contests.”
- Let children get back to normal daily routines and activities as soon as they are ready. Children do not grieve in the same way or to the same degree as adults do.
- See each child as worthy and unique. When children tell you what they think and feel about death, do not laugh, make fun of, or put them down. Do not betray their confidence by telling others what they said.
- Let children know that it is all right for boys and men to cry.
- As a parent, think about your own feelings and beliefs about death so that you can talk comfortably about it.
- Don’t worry about what other people will think. Do what is best for your family.
- Be open to a discussion whenever your child brings it up or whenever a death has occurred. Do not try to explain all about death in one easy lesson.
- Encourage children to express the bad as well as the good feelings about the person who died. This will help them work out anger, guilt and other emotional feelings.