Daddy's dead!

Deal with your child's questions about dying

When my son was about five or six, he began to be concerned about death. He seemed to have a vague understanding of the concept and it appeared to cause him a high level of anxiety and apprehension. He would say things to me like, "Daddy, don't die! You're not going to die are you?"

As I had said in a previous column, the prevailing belief years ago between parents and professionals was to protect children from frightening "adult" realities and the concomitant anxiety these concerns produce. We have certainly evolved from that position. Today we realize how important it is for children to learn about death.

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Learning to accept death is a natural experience in life and discussing death is a vital and necessary part of a child's development. Learning about grief and loss can be an important experience for a child. It can also be an opportunity for the whole family to share the feelings, the belief systems, and the defenses that are necessary for healing grief. Permitting the child to be involved in the experience, both discovering the issues and being in attendance at a funeral, helps to alleviate the child's fears and anxieties as well as provide a mutual source of support.

When children ask about death and dying and are denied honest responses, the child will use his imagination to "create" an answer and the longer these "mysteries" exist, the more difficult they will be to correct. Grief is an inevitable part of life. Longing for someone who is temporarily or permanently lost adds an important dimension to a child's ability to care about others. What follows is in response to parents' concerns of how to answer children's inquiries.

How do I talk to my child about death? What about when a loved one dies, should the child go to the funeral? Many parents often worry that discussing death with their children will fuel children's fears; this is not so. Research studies support the contention that a child who has a good grasp of the facts of death has an easier time accepting it.

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Without clear explanations children - especially young children - rely on incompletely formed ideas or magical thinking to make sense of death. They may believe that somehow "they" are responsible, or come to the conclusion that sleeping or having a stomachache can cause someone to die. You need to approach death with honesty, because sugar coating the issue may cause children confusion later in life.

- The preceding (what not to do and why) illustrates why brief, honest explanations are best. Although the "beautiful lies" parents transmit to shield their children from life's realities have good intentions, less than honest responses only add to confusion and anxiety.

- Don't give every detail or give more information than the child can retain or understand. Give it to the child simply and directly; don't be afraid to use the words death or dead in your explanation.

- This is a time to be warm and reassuring for the child, letting them know that it is natural to feel sad. Don't hide your tears - a child needs to know it is acceptable to cry. Reassure the child that memories of the person who died will be maintained through pictures and other mementos.

Should children go to the Funeral Home?

A good rule of thumb is to give the child a choice. Children like adults find comfort in rituals. When a pet dies many children want to prepare a special ceremony and burial. This process allows the child to memorialize the pet and provide "closure" to the loss experience - both important to healing grief.

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Parental attitudes are often "catching." If a parent has a comfortable attitude about going to the funeral home, the child probably will also. A visit to a funeral home may help to relieve some of the child's fears. Remember, chances are that your child will be attending a funeral at some point in their life; familiarity does help make it easier.

Keep in mind the funeral provides a structured way of allowing and encouraging both adults and children to comfort each other and openly mourn and honor the person who has died. I have seen again and again how a small child will attempt to comfort a grieving parent, and how both grow closer and as people during the process.

Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College. He is available for speaking engagements to parent groups.