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Coastal Palliative Care

Supportive care, Palliative care and Hospice services for Coastal


Talking to children.

Death is often a very difficult subject for parents to discuss with their children. It is natural for parents to want to protect their children from the pain and sadness that is associated with the topic of death. Many parents don’t want to bring up such an unhappy subject with their children unless they absolutely have to.

Many people simply don’t know how to explain death to children. Finding the right words and the right answers to all of the questions children have about death is not an easy task for anyone.

Warn children of serious illnesses. If a family member or close friend is seriously ill, it is better discuss it with children before death occurs so that they will be prepared and the event will not be a complete surprise.  Children can often sense that something unusual is taking place and the atmosphere of sadness in the home can be very frightening. It is, therefore, very important to explain what is going on and why they are sad and acting differently.

It may be tempting to put off telling children about the death of a loved one simply to save them from sadness, but children must go through the grieving process just as adults must. The sooner children are informed the sooner they can begin to deal with the loss. Speaking with children quickly also ensures that you will be the ones discussing the death with them  instead of someone else.
Even children as young as three can sense when something is going on in their household. They can also sense when someone is not telling them the whole truth. If children have been given an inadequate explanation and sense a cover up, they’ll figure that they’re dealing with something scary and unknown. They may even create a wild fantasy about what is happening that is much worse than the facts.

Explain to children what death means in very clear, simple terms. You should make sure the children know that the person won’t be able to do any of the things he or she once did, like walk, talk, or breathe.

Telling children that someone died because he was sick may lead them to believe that they themselves will also die when they are sick. It is very important to not equate death with going to sleep. Telling children that “Grandma went to sleep and will not wake up” or something similar will likely cause children to be afraid to go to sleep for fear that they will never wake up. Adults understand expressions like “passed away” and “gone to heaven,” but these are very confusing expressions for children. For the most part, religious explanations are very confusing to children. DO use words like “dead,” “stopped working,” and “wore out.” These are simple words that help establish the fact that the body is biologically dead. Parents should tell their children the facts and let them know they’re available to answer any questions. Children’s understanding about death depends on their level of development.

When someone close to the family dies, each member of the family is affected. Often, children are left out of the support network of relatives, neighbors, and friends. It is not a good idea to send children away to stay with a neighbor or friend at such a sad time. It is at such a time that children need the comfort and stability of their families and familiar surroundings. You should allow the children to grieve with the family and those who care about them instead of sending them away to grieve alone.
You should try to keep life going in as normal a way as possible. Try to maintain rules, and consistent mealtimes and bedtimes. Disruption of daily routines can be very upsetting to children, and it is thus best to try to maintain some normalcy in the household at this difficult time. The more stable daily life remains for children, the easier things will be for them.

Mourning is the most natural response to death, and children need to mourn just as adults do. You should not attempt to prevent their children from feeling sad over the loss of a loved one. Instead, be reassuring and supporting towards the children. Sometimes children’s reactions to death don’t meet adult’s expectations. Some won’t cry or show sorrow. Others will ask what seem to be inappropriate questions. No two children grieve in the same way. Don’t expect children to grieve in a certain way. It is not a good idea to insist that children display sorrow, or, on the other hand, that they act brave and dry their tears. Instead encourage the children to express their feelings, whatever they are.

Parents who are sad and grieving because of a death should not hide these feelings from their children. Instead, they should let their children know why they are sad, and they should reassure their children that they are not the cause of the sadness. Parents should not, on the other hand, turn to their children for emotional support. Children must be allowed to grieve without feeling responsible for supporting grieving parents.

When children confront death for the first time, they may be concerned about their own death. It is very important at such a timeto stress to the children that though no one knows for sure when they will die, they will probably not die for a very, very long time. Children may at this time also be afraid of the death of their parents. Reassurance must be realistic, for parents also don’t know for sure when they will die. Parents can let their children know that though no one knows for sure when they will die, they expect to be around for a long, long time.

There are several factors to consider when making a decision as to whether the children should attend the funeral. Things to consider are the age of the children, what the service will include, how emotional the service will be, and the children’s relationship to the person who died. Many experts believe that children above the age of seven should decide for themselves whether or not to attend a funeral. The parents, then, should respect this decision. With children younger than this, parents must use their judgment, taking into account how much their children know about death and how well they knew the deceased.

If the deceased was in the immediate family, it is probably a good idea to allow children to attend the funeral. Such a ritual will provide children with the opportunity to express grief and to say good-bye to the deceased. It will also allow them to see other people grieve over the loss of someone they care about.

You should consider how emotional the funeral will be before allowing children to attend. It may be terrifying for children to witness extreme hysteria from the mourners, especially if they are family members. If children do decide to attend the funeral,you should explain just what will happen at the funeral home, church or synagogue, the cemetery, and at home. Explain how people will act and what the children will see and hear. Parents who expect to cry and express sadness themselves should tell their children of this, too.

If you cannot remain with the children at a funeral, a close relative or friend should be assigned the specific responsibility of sitting with and caring for them. This caretaker should be prepared to leave with the children if they find the service overwhelming. Very young children will probably not be able to sit still for an entire funeral service and should be allowed to go for a walk or to the bathroom with the caretaker. The stress that grief causes often results in behavior changes in children.

Some common reactions to grief are:

  • Negative behavior. It is not unusual for grieving children to become angry and to strike out at adults and friends. Many children have difficulty expressing their feelings when someone close to them dies, and they often resort to this kind of behavior.
  • Increased activity. Many children become restless and overactive in response to grief.
  • Dependency. Many children become clingy and over-dependent on the adults around them as a way to cope with their sadness and grief.
  • Regression. It is not uncommon for grieving children to return to behaviors previously given up. For example, children who have mastered toilet training may begin to wet during the night again. Or, children who have given up thumb-sucking may pick up the habit again.