It’s normal to want to protect children and keep them innocent for as long as possible so when it comes to discussing death with children, many people avoid it. But how can you avoid it when a family member or close friend is in hospice and their approaching death cannot be avoided? Children and adults alike can cope better with things they know than what they don’t, and children are often more aware of death than we realize. To help remove fear and misunderstanding about death, there are many practical ways to help children be a part of the dying process.
Hospice Net, a site that provides information and support to patients and families facing life-threatening illnesses is a wonderful resource for hospice and palliative care-conversations. They understand that when having these conversations with children, it’s important to first, identify key developmental stages in different ages and the shifting perceptions that come with those ages, to help understand how children relate to the idea and the reality of death.
It’s important to remember that children develop at their own rate and in their own way. Following the suggestions offered here are merely guidelines for particular age groups.
Infants up to 2 years old
Babies and toddlers may sense a loss and their parents’ grief. In response, they may change their eating, sleeping, or toilet habits.
Children up to age 4 may think of death as a temporary condition. Animated characters may reinforce this perception.
In this age range, there is a growing understanding that death is final. There is also a growing awareness that all living things die. Symbols of death—skeletons, monsters—may become the source of nightmares.
In this age range, children begin to realize that they, too, will one day die. Some kids seek answers and ask questions about the meaning of life.
Teenagers can be especially prone to questioning the meaning of life, and sometimes take foolish risks to confront death and assert control.
Here are some additional tips to keep in mind:
- Avoid telling children that someone “went away,” or has “gone to sleep.” This can raise false expectations and fears.
- Avoid telling children that death only happens to “old people.”
- Be honest about emotions. If there are tears associated with death and dying, explain it truthfully: “I’m crying because I’m sad that Aunt Molly died.”
- Don’t fear silence. Children may withdraw to consider and process what they’ve learned. It’s okay to let them think and reflect alone if they know you’re there to help.
- Keep it simple when talking about death and clarify what it means to be “sick”. If you explain to a young child that someone has died from illness, you should then explain that only very serious illnesses can cause death and that many people get sick but most get well again.
- Allow all emotions to surface. Children can feel the same emotions as adults when it comes to lose. These feelings include anger, shame, and guilt. It’s best to meet all such feelings with openness.
- Give children the chance to ask questions. Sometimes the simplest, most honest response is difficult during an emotional time, even if the answer is “I don’t know”.
If a child has played an important role in the life of a dying person and is old enough to understand the situation, visits can be a very good idea as long as this is something both the child and the dying person wish to do. Never force or pressure a child to visit a dying person if they are uncomfortable or unclear about what is happening. If a visit is too much, then telephone calls can be a good substitute.
According to Hospice Net, “under the right circumstances, contact with the dying can be useful to a youngster. It may diminish the mystery of death and help her develop more realistic ways of coping. It can open avenues of communication, reducing the loneliness often felt by both the living and the dying. The opportunity to bring a moment of happiness to a dying individual might help a child feel useful and less helpless.”
When it comes time for the funeral, the decision to allow a child to attend must be based on the level of understanding that the child has of the situation and his or her desire to be there. If the child will be there, then it’s important to prepare for it by telling them what they will be seeing and what will happen during the service. It’s also important to share that people will be sad and maybe crying.
Funerals can be powerful experiences for grieving. Always use the best discretion in the child’s level of understanding for what happens during a funeral or service and even if just visiting a dying person.