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Helping Your Child Understand Death

Apr 19, 2008
Grief is an inevitable part of life. How much you tell your child about the death of a loved one depends on his or her level of maturity. Let your child ask questions, and give direct answers in words he or she can understand.

Preschool children tend to see death as temporary and reversible-like the cartoon characters they see on TV. Children this age also tend to confuse reality with fantasy and have trouble understanding cause and effect. For example, if a child has been angry at a parent for disciplining him or her and then the parent dies, the child may feel responsible for the death. Make sure you tell your child that he or she is not to blame in any way for the death of a family member or close friend. By ages 5 to 9, children begin to understand more about death and, after a death in the family, they may become concerned that they or their parents will get sick or die. During this time, they need plenty of reassurance to help deal with their fears.

Sometimes adults are so upset about a death that they can't talk about it at all, or their grief may make them emotionally unavailable at a time the child needs comforting the most. By exhibiting grief openly, you show your child that crying and anger are natural responses to death and you give the child permission to show his or her own feelings. Let your child express feelings in his or her own way. Children may grieve intermittently-over a long period of time and at unexpected times. Or they may not appear to grieve at all. Because young children have a hard time describing their feelings, they often show their confusion and fear by becoming clingy or by reverting to earlier behaviors such as bed-wetting. They may act out their anger about the death by becoming irritable or aggressive. Older children who aren't comfortable talking about their feelings may describe them in a story, private journal, or poem.

After the death of a loved one, try to maintain a familiar routine in your home to reassure your child that many parts of his or her life are the same. Explain that the loss will hurt less as time passes. Allow your child to participate in ceremonies, such as a funeral, but don't force it if he or she is afraid or resistant. Some children just can't cope with loss and develop long-term emotional problems. If your child has any of these symptoms, talk to the doctor:

* A prolonged period of sadness and loss of interest in daily activities
* Prolonged fear of being alone
* Inability to sleep
* Loss of appetite
* Acting younger than his or her age for a prolonged period
* Constant imitation of the dead person or wanting to join the dead person
* Withdrawal from friends and family
* A sharp drop in school performance or refusal to attend school

Your child's doctor may recommend counseling by a therapist who can help your child accept the death and go through the grieving process.
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