Taking time to help little ones understand

Many parents find it difficult to tell a child that a loved one has died. It’s bad enough for adults and perhaps to a certain extent, their fear of telling the child may hold them back. Placed in a situation such as this, the author of this guide sought the advice of a priest. The common sense of the reply he gave was something that served to help with the task at hand and one which will help parents all over the globe to help their children understand about the passing of a loved one.

The approach really is important

If a child has lost a parent, then the parent who remains is left in a void of his/her own. The remaining parent has grief to deal with, though must put the needs of children first, since their level of understanding is not yet fully developed. It’s hard enough to accept the death, though it’s important that the children are told about the death so that they can begin their grief. Protecting a child from feeling grief doesn’t help the child to come to terms with the death. Every child needs to express grief and the way this manifests itself is different for each child, though there is a similarity in some ways.

A child’s reaction to death may be one of anger, sorrow or one of questioning. Children have little conception of what death is, especially at a young age. They can’t imagine it because it’s just the beginning of their lives, so the timing is essential. Children are inquisitive. Be prepared to be barraged with questions as this is a natural reaction to loss but also a natural reaction to a small inquisitive child. They want to know more in order to understand it. 

Choosing a time

It’s important to choose a quiet time when the child is able to ask questions and when the parent is able to answer those questions to the child’s satisfaction. Brushing off their questions makes it very hard for a child to grasp the severity of the situation. Giving parental time to the child and concentrating on their needs at a time such as this is vital to helping them recover from the shock. 

Answering their questions

Some questions children pose may seem inappropriate to adults. The reason that children ask these questions is because the limit of their understanding is less developed than that of adults, but don’t make the mistake that a child cannot take true answers. They are better adapted to understanding if you can explain things in a factual manner. Details of the death don’t need to be explicit or beyond their understanding, but if the child asks a question, try to give the best answer that you can to take away any elements of doubt that may form within the mind of the child.

Going to heaven

While a small child may accept the explanation that grandma has gone to heaven, older children may want more detailed explanation. It is perfectly alright to tell the child that grandma was very ill and that the doctors tried their best to make her better but failed. If the child was close to grandma, hold hands and be there to comfort the child as you explain.

Questions are a child’s way to make sense of the situation.

If you believe in heaven, there is nothing wrong with telling the child that you believe grandma is now in heaven and that she feels no pain any more. You can even use the metaphor of wishing on a star when a child thinks of grandma, thus keeping a spark of attachment a child can understand to the person who is no longer around.

Medical detail

Older kids may want more detail as to what happened. Although they may not understand medical jargon, it’s wise to explain in simple terms what happened. If they ask questions, it’s because they need to know answers and helping them piece together what happens helps them to come to terms with it. Of course, you don’t need medical terms which are beyond their comprehension.  You can tell them that the heart stopped working and had been tired for a long time or that the illness was too much and that the suffering is now ended.

The best policy with children is honesty. Their needs are very important at a time like this, and putting aside sufficient time to listen to them and answer their questions is vital. How much you tell them depends upon how much they ask you. Their questions indicate their need to know. Death is a very hard subject to discuss with children, though at this stage of their young lives, it is a parent’s duty to give their children time and to be open and honest, receptive and aware of their fears and doubts. Being with them at this time and assuring them of the reasons for the death helps to lessen their fears and increase their understanding. 

The National Association of School Psychologists has prepared a paper to help parents and teachers dealing with the grief of a child. This may be useful reading and reinforces the ideas stated in simple form above to help parents in a very difficult and emotional situation.