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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Talking to Kids about Death and Dying

by Amy Clarkson

It’s difficult for adults to talk to one another about death. The topic makes us uncomfortable. Despite this fact, most of us will muster up the courage and have these hard conversations when the need arises. There is something, however, far more difficult than talking to our peers about death and that is talking to children about death.

Parents will have memories of questions kids have posed about death when a pet has died or bird is found deceased outdoors. These awkward moments force us as adults to simplify a complex concept on the fly, and usually unprepared, at best we stumble our way through.

What do we do when it’s not a pet; when the impending death of a parent or grandparent looms?

That answer is as complex as the topic of death itself. There are some basic facts however, that help guide us. One, we know that avoiding the topic of death is harmful. Kids are very observant, and usually have already encountered death on T.V. or have seen dead insects. Though it may feel like we are protecting children by not talking about it, research shows it creates much more problems for the child.

It is also not a good idea to force information that may be too complex on a child. The best approach is a balance between avoidance and confrontation. The goal is to be honest, sensitive, and approachable.

Another mistake adults often make is to use euphemisms when talking to kids. Children are literal, so when an adult says, “Your Grandma is in a better place now,” Kids literally think Grandma might be at Disney World. The phrase “he just went to sleep” is also very scary for a child to hear. Children will become afraid of sleeping themselves, assuming they too might never wake up.

It’s helpful to keep in mind that the developmental stage of the child is important to understanding the concept of death. For instance, kids ages 2-4 don’t grasp the permanence of death. Death is temporary to them, and they will continue to expect the deceased to come back. This age group may react to death with separation anxiety, withdrawing, regression or confusion.

Kids ages 4-7 often have magical thinking. This group will often feel responsible for the death and may connect something completely unrelated to it. For instance, a fight at school gets linked to the reason they think their dad is dying. This group may appear unaffected and unemotional after someone dies. Because of the tendency to feel guilty for the death, this age group needs good communication and openness.

Once kids are 7-10 they begin to realize death is not reversible. This age group is very curious about death and may ask insensitive questions. They can view death as a punishment and will often start worrying that others around them may die, or that they themselves will die soon.

People often ask if children should visit someone who is dying. The best advice is to leave the decision up to the child. If they are interested, they should visit with thorough preparation on what they will see when they arrive. They should be given permission to leave at any time. Finally, children should never be forced or made to feel guilty if they don’t want to participate.

Even though death is a difficult topic for adults, if we approach it the right way with kids, the foundation for healing and understanding for a lifetime can be created.

Dr. Clarkson is a hospice physician for Southwind Hospice in Pratt, KS. This post was originally published in Dr. Clarkson's End Notes column for the Pratt Tribune.  It is re-published here with the author's permission under a Creative Commons license.

Photo Credit: Still from the movie, "Is Anybody There?"

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