Many times we adults try to protect children by denying them information or their participation in death rituals. Depending on the age of the child, their prior experience with loss, their relationship to the deceased, and the type of death, the type and amount of helpful information will vary. Generally, children need simple explanations of the truth. They can sense when they are not getting the truth which results in a loss of trust in the adults around them and increases their sense of insecurity. It’s better to tell them simply that the person died in the accident because she was so badly hurt that her body does not work any more. If you show that you are open about your feelings and interested in those of the children they will feel more free to ask questions and tell you how they feel. This is what they need in order to learn about death and feel secure.
Many younger children (ages 3-5) see death as reversible. The simple explanation of an accidental death described in the preceding paragraph may have to be repeated in order for the child to understand. The distinction between any accident and a tragic accident may not be comprehended. Attention to the child’s questions, with repeated simple and consistent messages, should increase understanding. Encouraging younger children to understand and express their emotions is important.
Children age six to twelve will require a more detailed explanation of the death. For example, describing the difference between routine illness and terminal illness may be important. Sharing your emotions with children this age may be helpful for them to identify and express their own feelings. Adults should also make sure the child does not hold personal guilt feelings over the death.
Explaining death and helping teenagers understand emotions are important. Many adults assume teenagers will take care of themselves. Adult support is necessary to allow the teenager to discuss any anger, guilt, or responsibility they may feel.
Once the children have been given a simple explanation about what has happened they need to be informed about the wake and funeral. Younger children may be prepared for these events by describing, in concrete terms (things they can see), things at the funeral home and what will happen there. For example: “Your brother’s body will be in a box called a coffin. If you touch him he will feel stiff and cold and will not respond to you. His body does not work any more so he cannot see, hear, or speak to you. Many people will come to say good-bye to him. Some people will cry because they are sad that this is the last time they will see him.” After you have explained this, ask children if they wish to attend and respect their wishes. Often children will want to attend and you may choose to take them early so that they have your full attention and support while they deal with the newness of the experience. The death is an important family event and they need to be as much a part of it as they can be.
Explaining suicide and murder to children requires thought. Honesty remains an underlying requirement. Anger toward the loved one is natural in suicide, and the child should be advised that the anger does not mean you did not love the person. Adults may wish to consult a professional to help form an explanation for the child having continuing emotional difficulty. Stress to younger children that the remaining family members will not abandon them. Older children will probably seek a more detailed explanation which should be provided, as appropriate.
Authorities generally believe in explaining murder of a loved one as “a terrible thing happened over which we have no control.” The explanation should be as simple as possible as to what happened, who did it, and why, if known.
Withdrawal, regressed behavior, problems in school, misbehavior, appetite and sleep problems are normal in children after the death of a loved one. If these problems persist after six months, it may indicate that they would benefit from professional help.
It can happen, though, just as it does with all other living things, that people become ill or they get hurt. Mostly, of course, they get better again but there are times when they are so badly hurt or they are so ill that they die because they can no longer stay alive. It may be sad, but that is how it is for people. It is the way they live and it is their lifetime.
So, no matter how long they are or how short, lifetimes are really all the same. They have beginnings, and endings, and there is living in between.*
*Excerpted from LifeTimes by Bryan Mellonie. Copyright 1983 by Bryan Mellonie. Used by permission of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.