Wed, 09 Jul 2003

Kids need basic knowledge about death

Donya Betancourt, Pediatrician,

In most families, parents do not think about explaining death to their children until a relative has died. What we must remember is that during the death, the children were present along with everybody else.

Children have to be told about death. It will make sorrow much easier for a child to deal with if they know something about it beforehand.

What they really need and want is competent guidance and satisfactory answers. They can be taught that death is a part of life. Children under eight are often interested in death but are not able to grasp its finality.

Reading books together, and talking afterwards or drawing pictures to express their feelings is a good way of starting to talk about death. A funeral is a ceremony that celebrates death.

The cultural and spiritual beliefs of the children's family and community will greatly affect their understanding of what death means and the feelings that surround it.

When your child asks a question, listen carefully and make sure you understand what they want to know. Then answer the question, honestly and frankly. Avoid beating around the bush as this will only add to the confusion.

Why did she die? Can we ever see her again? Are you going to die too? Who will take care of me if you die? All the questions will need to be answered and we as parents must be comfortable with the subject ourselves or we run the risk of passing on our own fears. A child may ask a question that a parent cannot answer and it is OK to say "I don't know."

By school age, children understand that death is an irreversible event. Yet the every child's reaction to death is highly personal. One child might quietly and sadly express his grief. Another might become rambunctious and oppositional.

To help your child during a time of death, parents need to feel comfortable with their own grief reaction. It is appropriate for your child to see you cry when you feel sad; he will take comfort knowing that you are expressing your feelings so openly. This will make it easier for him to do the same.

When a grandparent dies, children may not find it as devastating as the loss of a parent or a sibling. However, if the grandparent has provided day-to-day companionship for the child, perhaps even living with the family or residing nearby, the death will be much harder.

Also, with the passing away of a grandparent, children often think, "Now that my daddy's daddy is dead, does that mean that my daddy is going to die next?" If you sense this kind of reaction, reassure your child that mom and dad are healthy and will probably live for a long time.

Provide your child with a lot of comforting, both verbal and nonverbal. Continue to reassure them that you are not going to leave them anytime soon.

Everyone dies, it is a fact of life. Our mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends will all meet the same fate; one day we will all die and with each death there is emotion.

The better a child is prepared for the day that is sure to come, the easier it will be for the child to return to a normal routine enabling him to avoid the confusion, fear, guilt, or shame commonly associated with death. By teaching our children early, that death is a part of life we are doing them a solemn but great service.