By Howard R. Winokuer, Ph.D., FT

Death is a subject that is usually not discussed, especially with children.  Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, one of the pioneers in the field of death and dying, has been quoted as saying that we live in a “death denying society.”  It is believed that if death is not talked about, then maybe it won’t happen.

Death is not something that can be avoided, of course.  And at some point, almost all of us will face a death where a child is one of the survivors. What will we say?  What will we do?

First and foremost, children need to be made aware of the dying process and included in the rituals connected with the death.  I think it’s a good idea to take children to the funeral home, even before the death.  The funeral director can describe the services that will take place as well as take them on a tour.

Most funeral directors are more than willing to sit down with you and the child to explain what might be expected.  Remember, the fear of not knowing is often worse than the truth.  Children have very vivid imaginations and create stories far more traumatic than the true story.

A child should never be forced to go to the funeral or see the body.  However, it can be helpful to encourage them to be part of process.  Remember, they too are experiencing a significant loss in their lives and they are grieving.  Each time a discussion about death takes place in a safe, unemotional environment, the child is being prepared for the reality of their loved one dying.

What we do or say may not always be helpful and can sometimes even be harmful.  It is important to be aware that children oftentimes take things very literally.  Do not tell a child that someone just went away, because every time there is a departure, which in essence is “going away,” they may fear a death.  Also, don’t say that someone just went to sleep or that death is just like sleep.  They may fear that if they fall asleep, they will not wake up again.

Other things to avoid include: praising stoicism; using euphemisms; being nonchalant; glamorizing death; telling fairy tales or half truths; closing the door to questions; being judgmental about their feelings and behaviors; encouraging forgetting the deceased or encouraging them to be just like the deceased.

Here are some other ideas about children and death:

* Communicate Through Touch – Touch can often express thoughts and feelings that words cannot.  For example, putting an arm around the child, sitting close to them, holding them on your lap or even holding their hand lets them know that you are there and they are not alone.

* Talk About Things The Child Has Already Experienced – There are often grief related issues that children have experienced that can be used as a model for discussing grief.  For example, seeing a parent crying or worrying, a miscarriage or other situations that occur in nature, i.e. leaves, shells, etc.

* Encourage The Child To Ask Questions – Don’t be afraid to answer a child’s questions openly and honestly.  The truth is always easier for a child to deal with than a fantasy that they might create in their mind.

* Allow Expressions Of Feelings – There are a wide range of feelings that are associated with the grief process.  Allow the child to express whatever feelings are appropriate at a given moment.  Feelings aren’t right or wrong, they just are.  Allowing the expression of feelings will let the child know that what they are going through is normal and accepted.

Other tips that adults might find very helpful include:

* Tell the Child about Death As Soon As Possible

* Be Gentle but Truthful in Telling a Child about the Death

* Give the Child Your Assurance of Love and Support

*Reassure the Child That Bad Thoughts Do Not Kill

* Reassure the Child That Nothing They Did or Thought Caused the Death

* Cry or Grieve With the Child

Talking to children about death can be one of the most significant life events an adult will have to participate in.  An adult should try to understand that the trauma caused by a death can be overwhelming to a child.  How they are assisted through it can affect them for their entire life.  Remember an adult’s openness may help decrease the child’s fear. And being there is the most important thing that an adult can do.

Dr. Howard R. Winokuer, Ph.D.,LPC, NCC, brings a special sensitivity and total commitment to his work.  Dr. Winokuer was the co-founder of TO LIFE, a not-for-profit educational and counseling organization that specialized in issues dealing with grief and loss.  During his twenty year career, he has worked with thousands of people suffering from these issues.  He has conducted workshops and seminars throughout the United States, as well as in seven foreign countries.  Dr. Winokuer has written numerous articles on topics such as coping with grief, relationships, aging, parents and teen suicide.  He has recently completed a book entitled A Simple Guide to a Peaceful Life. Dr. Winokuer has a private practice specializing in grief and loss www.thewinokuercenter.com and is the incoming president of the Association of Death Education and Counseling (ADEC). http://www.adec.org/

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Howard Winokuer

Howard Winokuer

Dr. Howard R. Winokuer, Ph.D., LPC, NCC, brings a special sensitivity and total commitment to his work. Dr. Winokuer was the co-founder of TO LIFE, a not-for-profit educational and counseling organization that specialized in issues dealing with grief and loss. During his twenty-year career, he has worked with thousands of people suffering from these issues. He has conducted workshops and seminars throughout the United States, as well as in seven foreign countries. Dr. Winokuer has written numerous articles on topics such as coping with grief, relationships, aging, parents and teen suicide. He has recently completed a book entitled A Simple Guide to a Peaceful Life. Dr. Winokuer has a private practice specializing in grief and loss www.thewinokuercenter.com and is the incoming president of the Association of Death Education and Counseling (ADEC).

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