Most children who have had a loss have three common worries about death.
Children coping with a loss often have these three questions:
Did I make the death happen?
Children often think that they have "magical powers". If a mother is irritated and says, "You'll be the death of me" and later dies, her child may wonder if he or she actually caused the mother's death. Also, when children argue, one may say (or think), "I wish you were dead." If that child dies, the surviving child may think that those thoughts caused the death.
Is it going to happen to me?
The death of another child may be very hard for a child. If the child thinks that the death may have been prevented (by either a parent or a doctor) the child may fear that he or she could also die.
Who is going to take care of me?
Since children depend on parents and other adults to take care of them, a grieving child may wonder who will care for him or her after the death of an important person.
Talking honestly about the death and including the child in rituals may help the grieving child.
Explain the death and answer questions.
Talking about death helps children learn to cope with loss. When talking about death with children, describe it simply. Each child should be told the truth using as much detail as he or she is able to understand. Answer questions in language the child can understand.
Children often worry that they will also die, or that their surviving parent will go away. They need to be told that they will be safe and taken care of.
Use the correct language.
When talking with the child about death, include the correct words, such as "cancer," "died," and "death." Using other words or phrases (for example, "he passed away," "he is sleeping," or "we lost him") can confuse children and cause them to misunderstand.
Include the child in planning and attending memorial ceremonies.
When a death occurs, children may feel better if they are included in planning and attending memorial ceremonies. These events help children remember the loved one. Children should not be forced to be involved in these ceremonies, but encourage them to take part when they feel comfortable doing so. Before a child attends a funeral, wake, or memorial service, give the child a full explanation of what to expect. A familiar adult or family member may help with this if the surviving parent's grief makes him or her unable to.
There are books and other resources with information on helping a grieving child.
The following books and videos may be helpful with grieving children:
- Worden JW: Children and Grief: When a Parent Dies. New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 1996.
- Doka KJ, ed.: Children Mourning, Mourning Children. Washington, DC: Hospice Foundation of America, 1995.
- Wass H, Corr CA: Childhood and Death. Washington, DC: Hemisphere Publishing Corporation, 1984.
- Corr CA, McNeil JN: Adolescence and Death. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company, 1986.
- Corr CA, Nabe CM, Corr DM: Death and Dying, Life and Living. 2nd ed., Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 1997.
- Grollman EA: Talking About Death: A Dialogue Between Parent and Child. 3rd ed., Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1990.
- Schaefer D, Lyons C: How Do We Tell the Children? Helping Children Understand and Cope When Someone Dies. New York, NY: Newmarket Press, 1988.
- Wolfelt A: Helping Children Cope with Grief. Muncie: Accelerated Development, 1983.
- Walker A: To Hell with Dying. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.
- Williams M: Velveteen Rabbit. Garden City: Doubleday, 1922.
- Viorst J: The Tenth Good Thing About Barney. New York, NY: Atheneum, 1971.
- Tiffault BW: A Quilt for Elizabeth. Omaha, NE: Centering Corporation, 1992.
- Levine JR: Forever in My Heart: a Story to Help Children Participate in Life as a Parent Dies. Burnsville, NC: Mountain Rainbow Publications, 1992.
- Knoderer K: Memory Book: a Special Way to Remember Someone You Love. Warminster, PA: Mar-Co Products, 1995.
- de Paola T: Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs. New York, NY: GP Putnam's Sons, 1973.