How do you talk to children about death?
An explanatory psychologist
How do you tell a child about a deceased relative?
What do you explain to him about death?
How much does he even understand?
And why is it important to maintain his daily routine?
A new and first book of its kind offers coping through illustrations and words
Dr. Naomi Baum, guest article
Wednesday, August 10, 2022, 06:00 Updated: 07:13
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Death profoundly affects children's sense of security.
A mother hugs a child (Photo: ShutterStock)
Death, as we know, is a part of life but no one ever expects it.
The French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levins said: "The unpredictable nature of death lies in the fact that it is not on any horizon. It cannot be grasped."
This is why it is so difficult for us to talk about it with ourselves - and especially with our children.
Death deeply affects children's sense of security, especially if it is a close person, such as a parent.
Unlike adults, who grieve for a continuous period of time after death, the process of processing grief in childhood is circular.
At each new stage of development, the child experiences the loss and bereavement again in a different way.
The death of a close person that occurred when the child was 2 years old, may once again take on a new and equally difficult meaning when, at the age of 6, the child discovers the finality inherent in the feeling of loss.
Therefore, over time the experience of loss may even become more difficult.
Drawing and writing are two recommended ways to deal with death.
The book I wrote in collaboration with the 'Ali Shlekht' funeral home, "Memories of the Heart", allows every child to express his emotions and feelings through words and drawings.
As its name suggests: a memoir that allows the deceased to be commemorated in a very personal way through illustrations and the sharing of thoughts and feelings.
The book not only allows children to express themselves but also allows parents to develop topics of conversation about the most painful subject and its meaning in life.
The book, the first of its kind that has just been published, allows the child to understand his feelings in the grieving process, process the separation and face the fear.
It is prepared as a workbook, intended for children between the ages of 3-12 who are dealing with grief.
Drawing and writing are two recommended ways to deal with death. (Photo: from the book "Memories of the Heart")
Illustration from the book "Memories of the Heart" (photo: from the book "Memories of the Heart")
However, despite the fact that each child reacts to death in a unique way, there are a number of common behaviors that characterize the dealings of children of this age with death, anxiety, anger, guilt, curiosity, mood changes, academic withdrawal and more.
Not only children are flooded with questions.
The parents are also subject to question marks, which it is time to solve.
These are the common questions that occupy parents who are dealing with death and are debating how to involve the children.
Should you tell the child what happened?
Many adults fear that they will scare their child if they tell him what really happened.
However, in many cases the child's ideas about the events may be much scarier than reality.
Therefore, it is important to explain to your child honestly what happened, while adjusting the nature of the explanation to his age and situation.
You won't always have answers to the questions he will ask, but the very opportunity to ask and talk with you helps the failure itself.
What should I say happens after death?
The answer to this question is not found in the field of mental sciences but in the personal opinions of each person.
Therefore, share with the child your personal view on the subject and emphasize that he is entitled to form a different opinion.
However, if you feel that an explanation about the existence of heaven will make it easier for the child, use this explanation and try to avoid explanations that emphasize the finitude of man.
Did you take the child to the funeral?
This depends on the age of the child, the circumstances of the death and the nature of the relationship between him and the deceased.
Try to share the decision with the child.
Tell him what a funeral is and what he should expect, practically and emotionally, and try to formulate a decision together.
A funeral can be a difficult experience, but so is the feeling of isolation and being left behind.
Forcibly removing the child from the funeral may give him the impression that death is such a terrible thing that it cannot be dealt with.
In any case, do not pressure the child to do something he does not want.
If the child wants to come but you feel too much distress, let a close person take care of him during the ceremony and explain to him what is happening.
How will I explain to him what will happen to us from now on?
Try to prepare the child for life after the loss: ask him what he thinks will happen to him later and invite more questions from him.
Answer them honestly, and if you don't have answers - say so.
Children, especially the youngest ones, do not understand what death is.
Therefore, it is important to find out with them what the concepts they have created for themselves, as their hypotheses may be more frightening than reality.
In order to illustrate your explanations, try using dolls, pictures and books.
Reassure them repeatedly that they are safe and ask them what they need to feel better.
Should I let him see me crying and sad?
The answer is yes.
When you are sad and cry in front of the child, you show him that these feelings are legitimate, and that he is allowed to share his feelings with you as well.
This will make it easier for him to express his feelings to you.
It is important to explain to him why you are upset and emphasize that this is not his fault.
If you feel that the issues bothering you are not suitable for his age and understanding, try to adjust the explanation and use situations and concepts that are understandable to him.
Should I let him stay up late?
As hard as it is, try to maintain the normal routine that was before the event, such as sleeping at regular hours and going to school and classes.
This will provide the child with a sense of security and stability in a very confusing reality.
Should I inform the school about the event?
It is very advisable to inform the kindergarten teacher, the educator or the school counselor, so that they know how to be more patient and sensitive towards him.
In addition, they will be able to be alert for signs of distress or functional problems, and inform you.
How will I know if the child needs professional help?
During the first weeks and months, the child may exhibit behaviors that you are not used to.
He may cry, withdraw into himself, return to bedwetting, withdraw from friends or deteriorate in studies.
Most children eventually cope with bereavement without the need for professional help.
However, if you see that the child has difficulty functioning in a basic way in everyday life, that he expresses distress that seems to you to be greater than his coping powers or that he comes up with suicidal ideas, seek professional help.
You can use the school counselor to direct him to the appropriate type of help.
Dr. Naomi Baum is a senior psychologist, a trauma and resilience consultant in Israel and around the world. She ran the resilience unit at MTI-Israel Center for Psychotrauma and writes books on the topics of cancer, bereavement, and resilience.