Helping Your Child Cope With a Death

Helping Your Child Cope With a Death

Meri Wallace
Meri Wallace

Meri Wallace, LCSW, a parenting expert and child and family therapist for over thirty years, grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Meri completed her Masters degree in Social Work at NYU, specializing in child development. Meri writes a blog for “Psychology Today”, and is the author of “Birth Order Blues” (Henry Holt and Co.) and “Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old” (Barron's Educational Series.) She has been a columnist for Sesame Street Parents, New York Family Magazine,and Brooklyn Parent and has been a consultant to Children’s Television Workshop. She is frequently interviewed by national publications including Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Parents Magazine.

When someone dies, he realizes that his parents and even he himself can die

Your young child may first come across death when Sweetpea her hamster dies, when she sees the movie “Bambi,” or when she loses a grandparent.

If your child asks you , “When will Grandma get alive?” you can explain, “Remember when the plant in the kitchen died last week? It never came back to life. When plants, trees and flowers die, they don’t come back to life again. When people or animals die, they don’t come back to life, either.”

As soon as your child learns that people and animals can die, he realizes that his parents and even he himself can die. He is terrified. He is so little; if you died who would take care of him? Would it hurt him if he were to die?

She may be afraid to go to sleep after a loss in the family. After all, when the bad guys on television are dead, they have their eyes closed like they are sleeping. Maybe she will not wake up. She may try to stay awake because she believes that if she is constantly on the alert, you will not die. Young children are magical thinkers-they believe they can make things happen. If your child cannot sleep after a loss in the family, you can ask if she is thinking about it. Then try to speak about her deeper fears.

You can say, “Sometimes when a person or an animal die, children worry about whether or not their mommy or daddy will die and whether they will die, too. When your child asks you for the first time, “Are you going to die?”, you may be very uncomfortable. This is a tough question for any parent to answer. Most parents do worry about the possibility of not being there to take care of their children, but they certainly do not want their child to be frightened about it.

While it is true that you cannot guarantee what will happen in the future, for today you can give your child the answer he so desperately needs. You can say, “It will not happen for a very long time. You will probably be very old by then and have your own family. You don’t have to worry for now; It’s so far away.” When he asks, “Will I die?”you can say, “All people die someday but usually when they are very, very old.

When your child asks, “Why did Grandma die,” give her a short explanation that she can comprehend. Tell her: “Grandma was very sick. The doctors gave her medicine and took very good care of her, but she was too sick to get better.” Even the simplest of explanations can leave a young child feeling puzzled and anxious. After you give her some information, listen carefully to the child’s questions to see what she has absorbed and where she still needs your help. In this case, you can reassure her that young children are much stronger. They can get sick, but if they have medicine they get better and live for a very long time.

It is important to emphasize that Grandma’s dying (or her pet) was not anyone’s fault (children often blame themselves.) For instance, your child might think that because he did not get on the phone to talk to Grandma, she died.

If your child asks why the grown-ups are crying, you can explain that people feel sad when an animal or a person die. Encourage your child to tell you if she feels sad or mad about Grandma. If she is sad, speaking about her feelings and having a chance to honor her will help. She can draw a picture of a special time with Grandma, dictate a story to you about her or you can make a photograph album together. You can even commemorate Grandma by planting flowers in a window box or in your yard. Talk with her about her memories of Grandma -how she loved the way Grandma would sing to her before she went to bed. Tell her that even though Grandma is gone, she will be in her heart forever, and when she thinks about her times with her, it will feel as though she were still with her.

Your readiness to talk with your child and your matter-of-fact approach will convey to him that death is a natural part of life: it can be talked about, and he does not have to be alone with her fears. Sharing information with him in a straightforward, supportive way will help him to face the future losses that life will inevitably bring him.