Until the twentieth century, most people died at home. Today a death often occurs at the hospital, nursing home, or care center. Many families also lived in agricultural communities, where death of farm animals was seen by the children and accepted as a natural part of life. Unfortunately, many children today learn about death from watching violent scenes on TV news programs or other shows. As a result, many children think that all deaths are frightful and bloody.
How can we protect children from the loss?
It is impossible to protect children from the pain of losing someone they loved. Trying to hide the death from them will only delay their inevitable realization that the person is no longer a part of the child’s life. It is better to include children in the mourning experience and teach them a healthy way to deal with their feelings. Should children attend funerals?Yes. Attending the funeral allows the child to be part of the family at a time when they need love and attention the most. If a child is leery of the funeral, perhaps you can arrange a private moment before or after the service for the child to say goodbye. The important thing is that the child is with friends and family and not isolated from the situation. A visitation, funeral, or memorial service provides children with an opportunity to confront their concerns, to have their questions answered, and to join family members in celebrating the life of the person who died.
Here are five simple ways to help a grieving child:
- Be there for the child. Listen when they need to talk, and hug them when they need comfort.
- Share fond memories about the loved one with the child, and encourage them to share their own memories.
- Encourage the child to draw a picture or write a letter to their loved one. These items could be placed in the casket or displayed during the service.
- Frame a picture of the loved one for the child or give the child another momento to remember their loved one by. (i.e. coins that were in their pocket, a favorite pin, etc.)
- Involve the child in the funeral. Let them read a poem or letter they have written, sing or play a song during the service, or even just attend the funeral with family and friends.
Questions frequently asked by children:
Why did the person die?
A) Don’t answer this question by talking about how “old” or how terribly “sick” the person was. Instead, give a simple answer about the physical cause of death. You may even want to explain a copy of the death certificate to the child. Don’t give answers that are more complicated than they need to be.
Will I die too? Will my Mom & Dad die?
A) When children experience a death of someone close to them, they tend to question their own mortality and that of other close family members, especially their parents. A simple and honest answer could be “everything & everybody that lives will die someday.” You might want to add that most people in our country can expect to live well into the ages of 70-80, even 90.
What happens to the person after they die? Will they go to heaven?A) To answer this question, you need to distinguish between what happens to the body and what some people believe happens to the spirit or soul. After a person is buried, someone might say “she’s up in heaven now.” A child might respond to this by looking down at the grave, looking up at the sky, and asking, “how will she get up there if we just buried her in the ground?” Part of the answer is, “Her body is buried in the ground and it always will be.” How you answer the question “what happens to the spirit or soul?” depends on your personal beliefs.
Can I touch the body?
A) If a child asks to touch the body in the casket at the visitation or funeral you might want to first explain that a body feels cold after the blood stops flowing through it. Have the child hold your warm hand and then together you could touch the hands of the deceased explaining the difference. Such questions are normal and are to be expected.
What happens to the body in the ground?
A) Explain to the child that after time a body decomposes. Because the concept is difficult to explain, you might mention that all of our bodies are two thirds water, and that the other third consists of our bones. After death the water eventually evaporates, leaving only bones behind. Explain also that this process usually takes several years.