"Your Father Died of a Disease Called Cancer": Explaining Death to Children
As a followup on my recent thread about behavior and education of children regarding respect or dignity relative to the life and death of animal creatures, I wanted to extend the topic to the explanation of death, particularly the death of a family member, to children. Sometimes it is well done and sometimes it is not and when it is not and perhaps even when it is, the children may have difficulties coping with the consequences.
In Los Angeles, we have an excellent resource to help families deal with death in the family themselves but also with regard to communication with their children and help when the child can't cope with what has happened. The resource is "Our House". It is our local grief support center (the e-mail address www.ourhouse-grief.org). We have taken our first year medical students there over the years to learn about the dynamics of grief and the approach to support and the students were pleased with the experience. The students also had a chance to ventilate to the counselor and the group their own personal experiences with death in the family.
I want to thank Lauren Schneider, LCSW who is Clinical Director of Child and Adolescent Programs at Our House for permission to put her handout "Seven Suggestions for Explaining Death to Children" on my blog. I would like to read any comments by my visitors about these suggestions and also how they themselves handled the issue of death in the family themselves or with regard to the communication with children. ..Maurice.
GRIEF SUPPORT CENTER
Seven Suggestions for Explaining Death to Children
• Explain the immediate cause of death simply and honestly - rather than using euphemisms or giving a philosophical or religious interpretation.
“Your father died of a disease called cancer.” rather than “God took your father because he was a good man.” or “Your Dad is visiting Heaven.” or “Your dad died because he was very sick.”
• Offer reassurance about their fears. Children who experience the death of a loved one often fear for themselves or the lives of other family members. Talk openly and honestly with children . . . explain that most people live ‘til they are very old.
• Offer reassurance that they are not to blame for the death. Many times children believe that they “caused” the death because of misbehaving or arguing or wishing harm. Clearly explain that this does not cause someone to die.
• Use correct terminology when explaining what happens to the body when someone dies. Clearly state that the person’s body has stopped working, that the person has died, and that they won’t be coming back. Explain the process for burial/cremation and make it clear that the person cannot feel any pain.
• Develop a plan with children regarding who will care for and love them should something happen to the surviving parent.
“Mommy doesn’t plan on anything happening to her but if something does, Aunt Jenny and Uncle David will be there to take care of you.”
• Include children in family mourning rituals. Explain what they can expect to happen during the ritual and ask them if there is anything special that they would like to do. Have a caring adult there to support them and answer any questions they might have.
• Accept children’s feelings about the death. Children often have a wide range of emotions after a death. Children grieve differently than adults. Developmentally they can only handle small amounts of pain/grief at a time; therefore, they may be openly sad one moment and happily playing the next. This is normal behavior especially for younger children.
Copyright our house 2007