Helping Your Child Process the Illness or Death of a Loved One

In this life, there is no escaping the reality that your family will be impacted by serious illness and death at some time. This is painful and hard for adults, but we must be mindful of the children who are affected as well. 

When someone we love is seriously ill it can evoke within us a sense of helplessness and powerlessness and children feel it, too. Allowing the child to assist in an age-appropriate fashion can help teach them important lessons about caregiving and compassion, help them be distracted from the inevitability of death and give them a sense of purpose and a special connection to the one they love. This may be as simple as drawing a picture for their sick loved one, bringing a drink of water, helping a caregiver adult prepare a meal, or visiting with them as tolerated. 

When a child experiences the death of a family member due to illness or accident it is important for the parent or adult caretaker to speak openly about it. Children can’t be fooled into thinking everything is okay when it is not. A loving adult needs to answer, and even encourage, questions from the child. 

The key is to communicate with the child in an age-appropriate fashion. For example, preschool children think in very concrete terms and do not have the ability to understand abstract issues such as death. With this in mind, you will want to talk to them using simple and concrete terms like, “Grandpa isn’t breathing any more. His body stopped working. He can’t open his eyes or talk to you anymore because he has died.” It’s important to avoid euphemisms like “passed away”, “gone”, “asleep” or “in a better place”. Be gentle, but honest, about the reality of their loved one never coming back, about the importance of talking about and expressing emotion, and that the sadness of grief can take a long time to feel better.  

Keep in mind, also, that a younger child believes everything has something to do with him, so it isn’t uncommon for him to believe he was somehow responsible for this terrible thing that happened in his family.  It may be important to reassure a child that Grandpa didn’t die because he wanted to leave the child. 

If the person who is sick or has died is an adult, the child senses it’s something bad. But if that person is another child, it can create a fear that they, too, are vulnerable and possibly in danger. The critical difference, then, is the need to reassure the child that he is safe and tell him why he can believe that. “Your brother has a sickness that is not contagious, so it will not make you sick,” or, “Accidents can happen but we are going to do everything we can to keep you safe.” 

If you have more than one child, you know that they can be as different as night and day and they may feel very differently about how they participate or if they want to attend the funeral, especially if there will be a viewing. If they choose not to, it is best to honor their request. If they do attend, talk beforehand to prepare them for what they will see and experience. For example, describe what a casket is, explain that Grandpa will not be able to talk back to them and that people may be crying. If the child’s parent is likely to be overwhelmed with grief during the funeral, arrange to have a friend or relative sit with him during the service. It is important to assure the child that even if Mommy and Daddy are crying, they will be okay. This will address the child’s need for security in this unusual and disconcerting situation. 

As life goes on after the funeral, keep an eye on your children to see whether or not they are adjusting well to the grief and loss. For example, if a child is usually very social, does well academically and has a healthy appetite, then becomes reclusive and stops doing assignments for more than a few days, she should be monitored. If there are ongoing significant changes in a child’s behavior, it may be time to enlist the help of a professional such as a family doctor, counselor or children’s grief group. 

Grief is certainly not a “one-size-fits-all” process, and every family member will deal with a loss their own way. One may stir up a flurry of activity to keep busy; another may withdraw for time to contemplate. It’s important that you allow yourself to mourn in appropriate ways and be honest about feeling sad, and also to take care of yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually. 

However, as children process the reality of a loved one’s death, remember that they simply don’t possess the maturity of an adult. They may say things that would seem strange, disrespectful or inappropriate if they were said by an adult. For example, a young child may parrot a phrase she’s heard on TV, and say something like, “Grandpa is deader than a doornail” or “Grandpa is a dead duck.” In your own grief, try to remember that the child simply doesn’t know all the unspoken expectations that surround a great loss. A death in the family is a ripe opportunity for “teachable moments” about the family’s religious beliefs, concern for others, traditions, and proper etiquette, but keep it simple for young children. 

If your family is experiencing a loss, we extend our condolences to you and hope you are able to find great comfort. If needed, be sure to reach out to your pastor, counselor, a friend or support group to find someone who can walk with you through the journey of grief. 

Live, Work and Relate Well! 

Dr. Todd

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