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The End is the Beginning

Direct and truthful communication can make death less traumatic for children


June 20, 2021 6:20:44 am
children, deathTalking to children about death is especially significant. (Source: Getty Images/Thinkstock)

I don’t know how to tell her. But if I don’t, won’t she blame me when she grows up? Isn’t she too young to understand?” These are questions from a 38-year-old father. He lost his wife to COVID-19, but has no time to grieve. He needs to find the best way to tell his six-year-old daughter that her mother, who she still believes is at her naani’s place and recovering from fever, is no more. Barring a few times, the child isn’t speaking of her mother’s absence. She has simply begun to ask her father to do the tasks that her mother did for her. “Has she just forgotten her?” he asks, and starts sobbing.

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We have a rather complex relationship with death. We seem to be aware of the universality of it, yet we usually refrain from talking about it, or thinking about it, unless circumstances leave us no choice. Death, for better or for worse, is the culmination of life. In not being emotionally cognisant of it and of our feelings around it, we end up doing a disservice to life itself. Our fear of the great beyond seems to further our reluctance.

Talking to children about death is especially significant. The way a child processes death tends to shape his or her response to it. Sometimes, people in their 30s and 40s recall with despair the loss of their parents or grandparents during childhood. Most of them remember the scenes at home. Watching adults speak in hushed tones, they concluded that this was something not to be spoken aloud. Almost all of them recall the sense of dread hanging in the air. It’s this feeling that colours their memory even decades later.

When faced with the loss of a loved one, it is important to break the silence and approach the subject. Usually, the best person to do this is the one closest — parent, grandparents, aunts and uncles, or even teachers. Pick a space where the child feels most comfortable and has the privacy to express emotions.

Explain what has happened using simple language, avoiding the use of euphemisms such as “she has passed away” or “she is no more”, which young children are not likely to understand. One could say, “Mummy has died. She fought her illness very hard. She loved you very much.” Try not to say, “Don’t cry” or “Now you have to be a big girl/boy”, instead say, “We are all grieving, and we are all in this together. I will be here to take care of you.” The hesitation one feels before using the word “death” when it comes to a loved one illustrates the subconscious training we have received. But it prevents a full understanding of what has
really happened.

The next step is about explaining the meaning of death. Use examples. While working with children, I’ve often used the metaphor of trees and leaves. Just as leaves fill up the tree in spring, and then shed in autumn, so is the cycle of renewal, of life and death.

The death of a pet can be a similar teaching moment. We can let go of the oft-repeated narrative of the pet who’s gone to god or to a beautiful estate far away. Instead, speak of a fulfilled life, which is a more emotionally-mature closure.

Grief is cold and cruel. A lot of the time, children inexplicably blame themselves for mishaps. This is by default. Let them know that it’s not their fault and they were always really special to the parent/grandparent who’s passed away and reassure them that you are there for them every step of the way.
It is also important to put across the reasons for death. A definite cause and a recognisable chain of events make the passing seem less arbitrary and assures the child that the others around will not die at random.

It is also important to highlight how things are likely to change within the family and who will take over the responsibilities for the tasks that the deceased managed. This gives them a sense of security and takes away some of the unpredictability.

Children tend to have questions that can be difficult to answer. Being direct and truthful is the only way here. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know, but we’ll figure it out” when you really don’t know. Do not refrain from letting your own emotions show.

Memorialising the loved one is significant, too. Going through old photographs and sharing stories from happier times help by not letting the circumstances dominate the way they are remembered. This is valuable in processing emotions and helping a child gain closure.

Children can switch back and forth from a grieving state, so it’s important to stay close to them initially. It may also be useful to let the child’s friends and teachers know about the incident so that they can be mindful of the child’s emotional state.

During this period, look out for certain warning signs. If there are persistent disturbances in sleep and appetite, if the child stays withdrawn and does not communicate and doesn’t show interest in anything, if there are frequent spells of aggression or crying beyond a few weeks, consult a mental-health professional.
Children pick up much more from what they observe rather than what is taught to them. The discussion with them is significant not just in terms of what message is passed on, but how it’s transmitted. What children observe in adults around will set a template for the reaction that becomes natural to them. The general idea is for the child to see death as a part of life and not something to be feared.

Meanwhile, the father of the six-year-old seems slightly self-assured. For today, that’s enough. He’s figured that in helping his daughter heal lies his healing as well.

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