Preparing young children for the death of a loved one

There are several important points that parents and others should consider in preparing a child for the death of a loved one. One of the most important is to understand the child’s capacity to comprehend death. Very young children do not possess the cognitive ability to understand the meaning of death. So, for the death of a loved one to make sense, parents must use words that the child can understand to explain that the loved one is gone forever.

Parents should be honest in talking with children about death and avoid the temptation to explain death through the use of false metaphors such as the loved one “having gone to sleep” or “having gone away.” Although generally motivated by a desire to soften the blow of an impending loss, the use of such metaphors may create unforeseen problems.

Young children may develop fears about dying if they go to sleep or come to believe that they are responsible for the loved one’s departure. Children’s abilities to understand death increase with age, brain development and life experiences, so parents must be able to explain death in words appropriate for the child’s developmental level and immediate needs.

Another important point for parents to understand is that some children may respond to news of the imminent death of a loved one with fear that those the child depends upon most for love and care may also die and leave him or her alone and helpless. Therefore, it is critical for parents to provide assurance that someone will always be available to care for the child, even if the impending death is that of a parent or other important caregiver.

Depending upon the age of the child, parents may prepare the child for what to expect following the death of a loved one. Such information may include simple statements about what will happen to the body after death, how family members may respond to the death (allowing the child to understand that deep sadness, anger and confusion are all normal reactions) and family customs for honoring the life of the loved one, including funeral rites. Parents should invite, but not coerce, children to participate in wakes and other activities designed to honor the life of the deceased person in order to create opportunities for psychological closure.

Another crucial consideration for parents and caregivers is to allow the child to grieve in his or her own way. Some children may want to talk with adults or other family members about the death, while others may engage in storytelling, drawing, crying or angry outbursts. All of these reactions are normal and appropriate.

Parents should understand that grieving is a natural process that proceeds and comes to resolution for different children in different ways and at different rates.

Finally, if a child is unable to grieve or if the intensity of grief does not subside with the passage of time, parents may consider joining the child in treatment with a counseling professional who specializes in grief counseling.

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