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Facing loss and grief
Perhaps one of the most difficult situations adults ever face is telling a child that a loved one has died. After 30 years working with Hospice of Yuma, Gay Anderson knows that very well.
“We are afraid a child won't understand death, or that they will be crushed emotionally. Most likely we have no idea when to tell them or what to say,” Anderson said.
But parents might be surprised by how much their children already know about death.
“Over time death education begins when a leaf falls from a tree, or when they see a dead animal in the street. As early as 2 or 3 years they ask about death,” she noted.
Adults should not avoid telling children of a death. Simply telling a child that “grandpa went to sleep forever” may bring fear at bedtime and fear of falling asleep, Anderson noted.
Yet, adults should try not to overwhelm children with too much information or complicated explanations.
“Try to answer all questions as simply and honestly as possible,” she said.
Troy Love, licensed social worker and director of Courageous Journeys Counseling Services, believes the best way to help a child cope is by talking to him or her about it. But first, the adult should listen to the child to try to gauge how much the child understands about death.
“Depending on the age of the child, they may not fully comprehend what is going on,” Love said. “Imagine a 5 year old going to a funeral and seeing grandma lying in a casket. The child may believe that grandma is sleeping.”
The adults can help the child by kindly getting down to eye level and discussing what has happened.
“It is helpful to discuss the feelings that the child may be experiencing ... including sadness, anger, confusion, love, etc.,” Love said.
He suggests helping children express themselves through talking, drawing and being held.
Children, just like adults, need to come to terms with the death and the grief that accompanies it. But Anderson points out that often children handle the news of a death better than adults.
“Like adults, children need to grieve, to accept the death and go with their lives. Cry if you want and let your child cry with you. Expression of feelings and thoughts is one way of expressing and sharing sadness,” she said.
“As grief is not a series of neat and separate changes, it may be more like an emotional roller coaster ride.”
Should a child attend a funeral for a loved one? Anderson believes it is a good idea to take a child to the funeral, but don't force them to go.
“To protect your child by keeping him/her away from the funeral may make the child feel shut out or rejected,” she explained.
However, she added, children should receive careful explanation of the funeral before they decide whether or not to attend.
If the decision is to attend, then the adult must provide an even more descriptive explanation of what will happen at the service.
She also notes that death doesn't end a child's relationship with their deceased loved one, only changes it. Therefore, she suggests keeping pictures and other reminders of the deceased around to spark conversation. This will help form a new set of emotional bonds with the person who has died.
It is difficult to say when a child needs counseling to overcome the grief. Decision making for counseling may be supported by a pediatrician or clergyman, she added.
For more information on healing a bereaved child, Anderson recommend's Dr. Alan Wolfelt's “Grief Library” available in the “Links” section at hospiceofyuma.com.
What about losing a pet?
Should the loss of a pet be handled differently than the death of a loved human? Not really, says Love.
“As humans, we are wired to be connected. These connections take place between people as well as with animals. Strong bonds can be developed between humans and animals,” he explained.
Therefore, if a child's pet dies, it is important to validate the loss and provide support.
“Sometimes having a funeral for a pet, even if it is a goldfish, is helpful to allow the child a chance for closure,” Love said.
However, he warns, what adults may view as a great loss, the child might not. “They may not be as emotionally attached or they may be more comfortable with the loss than we are.”
Nevertheless, keep in mind that everyone grieves their own way.
“It helps to allow each person room to grieve in the way that best fits for them. The way to understand what that way is, is to ask,” Love said.
How children understand death
Infants/toddlers - They may not understand death; they react to adult's emotions; they sense schedule/caregiver changes.
Children ages 3-6 - They have some understanding about death but think it's reversible; they may feel they somehow caused the death; they act out through play; they may ask about the deceased's return.
Children ages 6-9 - They begin to understand death is final; they need more details about the death; they deny the death; they fear other loved ones will die.
Source: Gay Anderson, Hospice of Yuma
What can adults do to support a bereaved child?
• Assess one's own feelings about death
• Be open and honest
• Assure the child that the death is not their fault
• Dispel fears
• Allow the child to attend the funeral
• Let the child know that the grief will pass
Source: Gay Anderson, Hospice of Yuma
Mara Knaub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (928) 539-6856. Find her on Facebook at Facebook.com/YSMaraKnaub or on Twitter at @YSMaraKnaub.