The death of a loved one is an ordeal, even for an adult. For a child, it is complicated by a lesser understanding of what happened and less developed skills to cope with stresses and crises. No matter how you tell the child the sad news, he will most likely suffer. But if you do it correctly and gently, then this suffering will be somewhat less severe.
How to prepare a child in advance
It’s not about saying in advance about the possible death of a loved one, if he, for example, is seriously ill (although it is also worth doing this). Rather, it is about preparing for the perception of death in principle. Of course, we all hope that we and our loved ones will live a long and happy life. But the reality is that the child can face death anywhere. Even if no one dies in your own family, it can happen in a family of a friend, acquaintances, at school, in the yard.
Therefore, it is better not to avoid talking about the mortality of all living things. Usually, a young child is tried not to talk about such things, and even if he asks questions about death himself – to nullify them. But the sooner, more accessible and careful you explain to the child what it is, the easier it will be for him to perceive death in general and the death of a loved one in particular in the future.
The best option for such an explanation is therapeutic tales. Enter something like “fairy tale therapy: how to tell a child about death” in the search engine, and you can find a huge number of such fairy tales written by professional psychotherapists. You can start talking about death from fairy tales rather metaphorical, in which the word “death” is not even mentioned, but tells about the transition from one form to another and the inability to return to the first from the second. Moreover, in such tales, the state of the main characters after the “transition” is described in its own way beautiful. And even if you yourself do not believe in the afterlife, this metaphor will subsequently help the child to survive the death of a loved one.
After the metaphorical tales, you can move on to more specific ones, in which it is already said in a plain text that some character has died. Of course, it is not necessary to constantly read only death tales to a child, but it is definitely necessary to work on them from time to time.
To lie or not to lie?
Often enough, parents who do not dare to tell the child about the death of a loved one, invent a story: they say, this person, in fact, has gone far, far away, and will not be back soon. If you really care about the psyche of your baby, then it is better not to do so. The reasons here are just a lot:
- The first and most important. If you lie to a child that a loved one has not died, then you most likely do not intend to take him with you to the funeral, wake, and other ritual rituals, and you just plan to visit the grave without it. But, by and large, you have no right to it. Yes, events related to the funeral process are sad, tragic, and almost certainly will cause tears in your child. But it is also an event that allows you to say goodbye to the deceased, finally realize that it is no longer in our world, and let it go. If you do not take the child with you to the funeral, then you deprive him of such an opportunity. And when he learns about the death of a loved one (and he will almost certainly find out), this opportunity will not be returned. And this causes more confusion and suffering than the open experience of loss.
- As noted in the previous paragraph, the child almost exactly with time (perhaps even very soon from talkative relatives or neighbors) learns about the death of a “family member” who has gone on a business trip. And then, in addition to the inability to properly go through all the stages of parting with him, he will also be offended that they lied to him. And offended quite reasonably.
- The atmosphere of grief cannot be hidden. Let’s say you hide what happened. But you will not get anywhere your depressed state, as well as the similar condition of other relatives, and still, all the hassles associated with the organization of the funeral, and the need to be present at the event itself. And all this, coupled with a lack of understanding of the reasons for such a state of affairs, will create for the child a difficult, oppressive atmosphere in which he will be very difficult to be. In general, do not think that you can just lie, and the child will not understand and will not feel anything – children, sometimes, feel other people’s emotional states even better than adults.
- The child will consider himself abandoned. If it was a person really close to him, then in time he would start to get bored because this person stopped coming to him, calling himself for a visit, calling, and so on. And do not understand why the grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, aunt, uncle, sister or brother with whom they were so close; now do not want to communicate with him at all.
How to build a conversation about the death of a loved one with a child?
So, if you decided to tell the child about the death of a loved one, then the natural question arises: how to do it in the least traumatic way? Below are a few tips to help you:
- Start a conversation in a more or less calm state. This does not mean that in the course of it you should not cry – you have the right to express your feelings (especially since the child will still feel them, even subconsciously). But nevertheless to begin this conversation, when you cannot restrain hysterical sobs and give a coherent sentence, definitely not worth it.
- The child should also be relatively calm. Saying about the death of a loved one, when he is overworked, not enough sleep, wants to eat, got up on the wrong foot and got into some kind of trouble all day – not a good idea. It is better to pick up a time when he is not in a too tired, exhausted condition.
- Brevity and truth are your best helpers. “Grandma died because she had cancer. Doctors tried to help, but, unfortunately, the disease was stronger. Now there is no grandmother. Perhaps you think that this is too much for a child, that it would be better to give him something in the spirit of “your grandmother was so good that the angels took her to heaven with them.” But you must understand that the child does not understand what happened, and he has the right to know it. In any case, he will be hurt and hard, in any case he will have to cope with the loss. But at least he will be aware of why everything is so. If you are religious and want to add some explanation related to your faith – do it after you clearly and understandably say what happened directly.
- Try to do without a negative, even if the deceased person was unpleasant for some reason. The child should not be left with the impression that death is a punishment “for bad behavior”, he should understand that this is a natural part, the end of life.
- Answer any questions. Questions can be anything: from where the souls of dead people go before the funeral will be held (up to questions about burying the coffin and worms eating a corpse). Do not take them as an insult to your grief. The child simply does not know, does not understand all these things, and he wants to eliminate these gaps. Therefore, answer them, but in some cases, of course, softening the details.
- Find a balance between over-reliance and detachment. For some time it will be difficult for both you and the child – the loss of a loved one still represents extremely strong stress. But still try to listen to him, to feel his condition. If it seems to you that you should hug him, pat him on the head, and give him a favorite toy – do it. But if you feel that he pushes you away, wants to be alone – do not choke him in your arms forcibly. And do not try to “smooth over” the sad news with sweets or something else like that, because such things do not work. Neither do you try to replace a departed person: you are not him, and the child needs to live through his loss, not devaluing it.
In conclusion, let us once again return to the topic of the funeral. As already mentioned, the most reasonable, environmentally friendly option for the child’s psyche will still be to take it with you. Sad moments are a part of life, and you should not constantly protect him from them, because then it will be more difficult for him to cope with his negative emotions. But perhaps for some reason you generally, categorically, disastrously do not want to take him to the funeral, and these reasons overpower the arguments above.
In this case, it is better to leave the child at the time of the ceremony with people whom he trusts, with whom he is calm and comfortable. Do not be lazy to explain why you do not take it with you, and also say what will happen in principle. And surely after some (preferably short) time, go to the grave with him, so that he could at least say goodbye to the dead and let him go. In a word, take care of the feelings and condition of your child, but never think that by hiding everything negatively colored from him you are making him better.