talking to your child about death
Tricky stuff

Talking to your child about death

As unpleasant as it is to consider, it is a question every parent will have to face at some point – so how do you go about talking to your child about death? In a situation where a death is pending or when a loved one dies, how much information should you give your child? Do you tell them the complete truth or do you break the news to them gently, keeping some information from them? What is the best action for parents to take? We ask the experts.

Dr. Katherine O’Hanlon, clinical psychologist.

Although parents naturally want to protect children from upsetting information, in the case of a death or terminal illness it is important to tell them the truth about what is happening so they know they can trust and rely on you during difficult times.

Children are very sensitive to the feelings of others, and will know something is wrong. If they are not told what, they are likely to imagine all kinds of confusing and scary things which they may not feel able to communicate.

Explanations should be given in clear, simple terms that are appropriate to the child’s age and stage of development. It is not necessary to go into detailed explanations that might be confusing or difficult to understand, but it is important to answer their (often repetitive) questions honestly, so that they can begin grieving and processing the loss.

Share your own feelings with them so that they learn it is okay to be sad and upset, but try not to overload them so that they feel they cannot burden you with their feelings. Children need to know that adults can tolerate their distress and support them to manage it, so it is important to help children recognise and accept their difficult feelings, and to find ways to express them. Use words like death and dying, rather than going away, losing, sleeping etc. as these can lead to fears developing around everyday separations. Age-appropriate books can also help children make sense of the situation and may facilitate conversations.

Eithne McLeavey is an accredited play therapist and child/adolescent psychotherapist

Where the death of a loved one is pending or when a loved one dies, it is a very difficult task for a parent to have to break the news to a child. Parents often want to shield their child from the pain of grief and loss.

Often children do not show overt grief, and it can be assumed they get over the loss quickly and easily, but research shows children have similar reactions as adult, such as shock, numbness, denial and disbelief.

To better equip them to cope with their loss and help them make sense of it, they need to be told the truth about what is happening when it happens. The child should be given open and exact information in clear, simple, age-appropriate language. In the case of a pending death, the seriousness of the illness should be explained, for example, how the doctors are trying their best, but may fail. When a loved one has died, give the child an opportunity to talk about the deceased and ask questions.

Give truthful, factual answers. Allow the child to express their feelings. They need to be told it is okay to be angry, upset and sad, and that others in the family feel those things too.

Naming the feelings can help. Younger children often don’t have the words to express their emotions, but this can be overcome by allowing them to express themselves through play and drawings.

Going through photos and discussing times spent with the person, and making a memory box or scrapbook can encourage discussion and provide comfort.

When a child is involved in the funeral of a loved one, it provides an opportunity to be with family members at the ritual of saying goodbye. What will happen and what the child will see at the funeral should be explained beforehand, and the child’s decision about attendance at the funeral must be considered. When a death has occurred, children often fear the loss of another family member. This fear can be lessened by keeping the child in close proximity to the remaining parent or other close relative. Keeping to the child’s normal routine together with reassurance can diminish anxiety.

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