Sooner or later you will be faced with the question, "When will you die, Mommy?". This is part of normal development, however it may suddenly stem from seeing something on T.V., overhearing a conversation relating to death or even discovering a dead bird in the back garden. This is an important question, of that much importance that one shouldn't be caught off guard. This situation would require a calm and honest answer, however only relaying the information that is required, and not more.
How Children See DeathYoung children of three and four years do not have a concept of death. Their biggest fear is abandonment and they associate death with this. Death at this age, is also viewed as 'temporary', and questions such as "when is granny coming to visit", for instance are common. Four to five year olds on the other hand, associate death with mutilation. This may occur because of having seen a dead cat or dog lying next to the road and naturally assume that death is always accompanied by violence and physical mutilation. It is only when a child reaches the age of nine of ten, that he/she really starts to comprehend the meaning of death and realize that it is a permanent state. This however does not make it any easier, as even though the child now grasps the concept of death, she does not have the 'facilities' to deal with the grief.
Coping with griefAt this point, your role as a parent, teacher and confidante become increasingly important. The way in which you handle the situation, will determine the way in which she handles this and future losses.
Death is a sensitive issue, not just to children, but adults too. It needs to be dealt with very thoughtfully and caringly. Your child is also mourning the loss of the person who died, and may battle to understand that you need 'time-alone' to work through your own emotions. She is not old enough to understand her own emotions and feelings of despair, and thus needs a lot of love, patience and understanding. Don't isolate children - physically or emotionally. Physical touch is very important, even more so during times of grief. After a death has occurred in the family, it is important that you pay special attention to the children - Remember, they experience the same emotions, symptoms of grief and feelings of loss as adults, but lack the understanding and vocabulary to express these feelings in a proper manner.
Many parents are reluctant to allow their children to attend funerals. However, attending the funeral is the first important step in the grieving process. This would allow the child to witness that grief is not something to hide but rather to share, and that he is not alone in missing the departed. How many of us as adults, hide our feelings?, and how many of us develop ulcers and other stress-related illnesses, because of not having the 'ability' to release our worries? Do not be afraid to show your emotions, locking yourself in the room to have a 'good cry' is all very well - but it will convey the message that it is incorrect to show your feelings in front of others. The child may then feel compelled to hide his grief and put on a brave front instead of crying which is a healthy outlet for grief. By portraying your own grief, you are demonstrating that crying, being sad and laughing are normal emotions which everyone experiences.
Everyone grieves differently and this includes children. Children may temporarily regress emotionally and physically. Tantrums, aggressive behavior, dependency, impaired learning ability, nightmares and bed-wetting may manifest themselves shortly after the death has occurred. Be patient with your child. Do not punish or threaten her. Instead listen to what she is saying behind the words she uses, and give her lots of love and attention.
Points to Remember:
- Preparing yourself before the question arises, will not only make it easier on yourself, but also afford the child a better answer.
- Read children's stories together - there are many available that explain the cycle of life, introducing death in a very subtle way.
- Suggest ways for your child to release anger - hitting a punch-bag or pillow or even kicking a ball are all good ways of releasing pent-up anger.
- Writing poetry or even writing a letter to the dead person are activities worth encouraging.
- It may be worth your while to reassure a young child that the moment of death is usually peaceful, not violent and bloody like the deaths he has seen on television and in films.
- It is no good assuring him that only old people die; it is better to be honest and admit that early death is a possibility for everyone, but an unlikely possibility which is not worth brooding over.