As in all other aspects of life, honesty is the best policy! Children can quickly see through adult uneasiness or deceit. Telling a child that the person died and giving a specific reason for the death is most honest and definitely the most helpful. Don't beat around the bush, they will know. If children raise further questions, these too should be answered honestly and patiently. 2 of the most common questions children ask are:

What happens when someone dies?

Children experience death in many ways. When a pet dies, or perhaps a relative dies it's important to answer the child's questions directly and honestly, and not to say that the person went away or went to sleep. An indirect answer may cause children to become angry at the deceased for having gone away, or angry at God, or they may even be afraid of sleep. Hiding death from children is not helpful. Direct and honest answers mean saying that the person or pet has died and will no longer be part of our lives. It's helpful to tell the child that death is natural and that when we die our bodies don't feel anything. 

You won't leave me, too, will you?

The death of a parent can be very upsetting to a child. Besides feeling sad and lonely, many children feel very insecure. The safe environment that the family unit provides has been destroyed and often children don't know what to expect next. Children need a lot of reassurance and love when a parent dies. They should be allowed to cry and to express their feelings, never berated or told to "suck it up". Children should be allowed to share in wakes, memorials and funerals for anyone who was an important part of their life, if they wish. While the gap created by death won't ever completely close, love and understanding will help bring a family closer together.

Death is not a common occurrence in the lives of most families. It is very important to reassure children that they will be cared for in spite of the fact that things will be different without the deceased. It is helpful to include children in all ceremonies and as much as possible in decisions that will affect them but only if they wish to participate. A child's loss is real and will not go away by being ignored.

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    As part of my doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, when information on grief, bereavement, death and dying was scarce, some colleagues and I began group work with the bereaved. Out of that work grew interviews with widowers, training with funeral workers, clergy, social workers, hospice and medical personnel. 

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    Copyright 2013, Dr. Donald Steele, Ph.D.
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