Death is a difficult and sensitive topic to discuss with children. So often adults feel at a loss for words. Without knowing what to say or how to say it, many parents and professionals avoid children’s questions. Some refuse to respond at all. Eight-year-old Alice explained a disturbing event. She told her teacher about her dad’s death during the very first week of school. Her teacher never said a word. Infuriated and saddened, Alice asked over and over, “Why didn’t my teacher ever say anything back?”
Often girls and boys share how angry and alone they feel at being dismissed or ignored when asking questions about the death of a loved one. “Where did my Mom go?” “Why did Dad have to die?” “Did my doggy suffer?” “Will I die too?” are very common thoughts for girls and boys to have.
Responding with care can normalize children’s uncomfortable ideas and feelings. Acknowledging their questions is a valuable tool to reassure them and help them feel safe.
Honoring children’s questions
We may feel terrified when confronted by a child with a question about death, and send a conscious or unconscious message inhibiting further discussion. When adults respond to questions in ways that are more complicated than necessary, children can become overwhelmed. When adults limit replies or refuse to answer, kids get the message. Death is a closed topic – don’t ask again.
Joey’s mom wanted to know “What to I do when my-five-year-old asks so many questions about death?” One health care professional responded to Joey’s mother in this way. “My daughter Emily is five. She also asked too many questions about death. I explained to her she could only ask two questions a day. If she asked more than that she would need to go to her room for a half hour and think about it. This really worked. Within one month’s time Emily never asked another question about death.” Emily got the message in no uncertain terms – stop asking about death.
Placing restrictions or discounting children’s questions will work to extinguish asking them. Our goal is to create an environment where all questions are welcomed, accepted, and responded to openly and without judgment. The purpose of this book is to share simple and direct dialogues about death to facilitate open communication. Comfortable language is a useful instrument for all caring adults to share appropriate responses that are satisfying to young people.
Children re-grieve at different developmental stages. During early childhood they are usually satisfied with a simple definition and explanation. They see death as reversible and have egocentric ideas involving magical thinking. Many times they believe they caused their person’s death.
As they get older they become more curious about the facts of the death, and may come back at ages 8, 9, and 10 and re-visit the death with new interest and inquisitiveness. In pre-adolescence and adolescence they approach their strong need to look to their own age group to find answers.
At this age girls and boys begin to see death is not reversible. Life is finite. Young people begin to form their own spiritual belief system and look to their peers for support and understanding. They feel empowered to become advocates for causes related to their person’s death.
Responding to a Question
Children need to be told the truth about a death in an age appropriately way. They usually know when they are being lied to. So often lies create a secondary loss of the trust of their emotional environment.
There are many ways people die. Often adults have difficulty in finding the precise words to use to explain a fatal Illness, sudden accident, murders, suicide, or natural or man made catastrophe. They are surprised when many girls and boys are satisfied with simple and honest responses appropriate to their developmental stage. Six-year-old Rebecca asked, “How did mommy die?” “She got very sick.” might be just enough of a response.
Excerpted from Great Answers to Difficult Questions about Death: What Children Need to Know. Linda Goldman Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2009Tags: grief, hope