We need not be too grim or serious. At the same time, one should not be very casual and give the child a false sense of assurance that the loved one has “become a star in the sky” or is “with us”.
By Shreya Chugh
Death is one of the most difficult realities to deal with. Parents often struggle to interpret death and the associated emotion to children. So how can parents talk death, sometimes of a loved one, to children, without letting a trauma set in? We can explain death to children as a transit point in life. The moment you are born, your journey has begun. Some have already boarded the flight and taken off. While others are still at the security check and boarding gates, you will also take off soon. Everyone has to reach his/her destination. Some have arrived earlier and some are still on the way.
We need not be too grim or serious. At the same time, one should not be very casual and give the child a false sense of assurance that the loved one has “become a star in the sky” or is “with us”. Several studies and psychologists suggest that parents should talk more openly and directly with children regarding death. Brushing the issue aside or making up fairy tales in explaining death may further end up suppressing the issue and the child’s emotions.
It may not be only in the case of the passing away of a loved one or a pet that we approach our children and talk about death. There could be several instances when one could explain the concept of death to a child. Showing the child, the earthworm that died in the garden, or an apple that was alive but now looks rotten, are other ways to bring up the topic. The subject of death could also be raised if it comes up in a cartoon or a movie or when death tangentially affects your family, such as when an acquaintance or even your neighbour’s pet dies. One should try to be honest and concrete, even if it might sound a little blunt: One could say, ‘So and so died. When people die, their body stops working and they can’t walk, eat, see or play anymore. You won’t be able to see them anymore.”
If the child further asks whether the person’s body can be fixed, one could say, “When a body stops working, it can never start again.” Such responses often help the child come to grip with the reality and the entire life process. There could be instances when your child might enact out scenarios about death, which is a healthy way to process his feelings, and the child shouldn’t be stopped when doing so.
Death isn’t temporary
Young ones especially benefit from it because the concept of death is confusing and they usually don’t know how to fully express how they’re feeling. It is also important to break the notion of death as preschool children mostly see death as temporary, reversible and impersonal. It is only when they grow up that they realise that death is irreversible and that they too will die someday.
Parents are often confused about whether to take their child to the funeral or not. Experts suggest that though it is the prerogative of the parent, if the child expresses interest in going, he could be taken but should be told as to what the funeral would be like.
Stick to the routine
When you lose someone you love in your family, try to stick as close to your child’s normal routine as possible. Also, efforts should be made that one’s normal routine doesn’t get disturbed in such a scenario. When there is a deviation from the normal routine, children often sense that something is wrong. Children should be kept busy in sports, or activities such as singing, dancing and studies. If tears come, the parent should not suppress them in front of the child. It is healthy for both the parent and the child to cry it out.
Address their insecurity
Whenever a child asks you about you long you are going to live on this planet, all he is seeking is a reassurance that the parent would be there to take care of him and he’s not dying anytime soon. Possibly the best answer to such a question is, “I don’t expect to die anytime soon. I expect to be here to take care of you, but if I did die, there are lots of people to take care of you. There’s uncle, big daddy, grandma and aunt.”
It is often said that death is the ultimate truth. And it is indeed. It is with the time that everything heals. It helps to reassure the child with a life-supporting affirmation that in time ‘Everything will be alright’. This belief could provide some emotional comfort to both the parent and child as life to wade through grief.
(Shreya Chugh is the International Director for Art of Living Kids Programs. She spearheads the organisation’s children and young adult programs and has worked with over 5 lakh children and teens in the span of two decades.)