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Help Your Child Deal With Death

How To Help Your Child Handle a Death in the Family

I was reminded that funerals with a young child wouldn't be easy the minute the casket came into view. My son caught a glimpse of Grandma, dressed in her Sunday best, as still as a peaceful sea. "Where's Grandma?" he asked.

"Doesn't he know?" a woman whispered. "You can always say she's just sleeping."

But he did know. My husband and I had already explained that Grandma died. Maybe his reaction was what we were all thinking; the woman in the casket didn't look quite the way we remembered Grandma. Then again, maybe he was just uncomfortable.

Death is always unnerving, but while an adult can understand and even rationalize the situation, a child may not know how to cope with the flood of emotions. How a child handles the death of a loved one depends on his personality and his experiences. Some children will become withdrawn; others will cry; still others will act out in anger.

"A child is extremely sensitive to what his parents feel," says John Welshons, a grief counselor and author of Awakening from Grief: Finding the Road Back to Joy. Children understand death according to what their parents show them.

As a result, there are a few things you can do to ease the emotional impact that death has on your family.

Softening the Blow

Most parents want to protect their children from pain. The revelation of death is no different. For some people, concealing the truth or telling lies seems like the best way to shield their child from suffering.

"From the time we are children, most of us are taught not to think about [death]," Welshons says. He stresses that it is important that the child never be lied to and that parents should not associate death with going to sleep or going away.

Instead, Welshons suggests preparing children for death in small increments, using nature as the tool. Events such as the leaves dying in the fall can be excellent transitions to talks about death.

Sometimes, a child's first introduction to loss is through the death of a family pet. Welshons cautions parents to avoid the impulse to soften the blow by immediately buying another animal. He explains that by doing so, the parent prevents the child from experiencing loss, and loss is inevitable. If parents do not allow a natural response, the child will be unprepared for losses later on in life.

Patricia Enoch, of Baldwin, New York, recalls her children's reaction to the news that the family dog had died. "They were all upset and crying when he was found dead one morning," Enoch says. "My husband and older son let [the younger children] say goodbye and then wrapped him in a blanket and took him to the vet for cremation. They were sad for a week or so, cried every now and then."

A year later, the children's grandmother died, and Enoch believes that the grief they felt for their pet helped prepare them for the death of their grandmother.

Helping Them Cope

Simply teaching your children about death will not prevent every ounce of emotional pain the child will feel in times of grief. It is hard to watch your child suffer, but you can take solace in knowing that your loving presence can help your child heal.

"My experience is that children handle the death of a loved one well when they have at least one loving adult, whom they are close to, who tells them the truth, who allows them to grieve and grieves with them, and who is reliably and lovingly available when needed," says Dr. Margaret Paul, relationship expert and best selling author.

For Maureen Hollis, of Charlotte, North Carolina, allowing her 6-year-old to grieve meant considerable tears and lots of talk. In the end, Hollis found that a tangible reminder of "Nana" was incredibly comforting to her daughter.

"We had a blanket that Nana had knit for McKayla when she was born," Hollis says. "When she died we brought out the blanket and let McKayla sleep with it. We explained how Nana had knit it for her and how she must have felt when she was doing so. McKayla slept with that blanket every night and called it her 'Nanablanket.'"

For some parents, a child's grief is much harder to detect. Crystel Riggs, of Clemson, South Carolina, says her daughter never cried and never acted out when her grandmother died unexpectedly. Instead, the child became quiet and refused to speak about the death or her grandmother.

In this situation, Welshons says that it is the parent's responsibility to gently bring the subject up periodically. Using questions like, "How do you feel about that?" while you hold and stroke the child lovingly may be just what is needed to open her up.

The key is to be available and to offer your listening ears and loving arms, even if your child isn't ready to talk.

Creative Outlets

Welshons asks parents to make sure that the child is expressing whatever is being felt on the inside. He advocates creative outlets for grief. "Whether it be through talking, painting, drawing, singing, dancing or some other means, encourage the child to find a creative outlet."

There are many picture books that tell the story of death using soft words and gentle illustrations. If you find yourself at a loss for words, quiet moments spent reading and then talking about the story may work wonders.

Parents simply want their children to feel better when they are feeling sad. By helping your child work through the feelings of grief, you might be surprised to notice that you are helping yourself cope, too.

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