Laura Sollenberger, Pediatric Supportive Care Counseling Supervisor – OSF Saint Francis
The death of a close relative can be very difficult for children. Helping children cope before the death of a loved one can help improve coping after the death occurs.
A child’s reaction to learning that a close relative is going to die will depend very much on their age and stage of development and their previous experience with death. No two children will react in exactly the same way.
It is not always easy to decide what to tell children, especially if they are very young. Whether they are your own children, family members, or children of friends, you won’t want to worry them. Talking to children about death can be very difficult and upsetting. It is natural to want to spare them any hurt or pain.
Honesty is the Best Policy
However, when helping children cope, it is always best to be honest. They are very perceptive. They will pick up on changes in body language, mood and affect. If they are not told what is happening they can imagine things that are even worse than the reality.
It is very important to give children simple explanations they can understand, with plenty of time to absorb and process new information. Children often need permission to ask questions, and you may find yourself answering the same question several times. It can be very difficult to have to repeat information but it can play a big part in helping the child understand what is happening.
Children often need reassurance that nothing they did caused an illness or death. Young children, especially, may feel that they have somehow made the illness happen by getting angry or wishing someone away. Children sometimes worry other people they care about may die – or even that they may die. Reassurances of health and safety are helpful in this situation.
Even the youngest of children can express their love for a dying family member. Drawing pictures, making cards, creating hand molds with their loved one, making videos, taking pictures and sharing stories can all create memories that then become touchstones for a child’s grief journey.