Helping Children Handle Death


By Ron Hindbaugh M.A.


Death is part of life. Each week we hear or read about deaths of service men in Iraqi. We cannot even comprehend the number of people who lost their lives in the Tsunami and the misery that exists in these Asian Countries. The television and news coverage make it impossible to protect our children from exposure to not only death but the grisly pictures associated with war and disasters. And although this may not seem like an ideal time it is a natural time to teach our children about death and how to handle losses. It is a good time to teach children to value the time they have on earth right now. Here are some lessons you may want to introduce to your children.

When death occurs to individuals we do not know we may not feel the loss as pointedly but someone is hurting and if our children learn to care about the death of people who are strangers they are better prepared to face the death of someone who is close. Some losses are harder then others to cope with. Depending on how much we have opened our heart to a loved one or pet is a determining factor in the adjustment process. Those children who are brave enough to form close attachments may hurt more then those who do not take this risk. This is ok. Help your child know that they do not have to cope with a death the same way as others in the family do.

But keep in mind that empathy for others helps children to understand their own sorrow better. Death is a loss. Let your child know that being sorrowful this is normal. These feelings are what make us human and caring creatures.

Grieving is part of adjusting to a loss. There is no way that I am aware of that a parent can prevent the normal pain and sadness that are part of this experience. Usually the child (or adult) will initially be numb or deny that the death has occurred. Then they will be angry because the death has occurred. (This is a way of trying to control or bring back the loved one.) After anger normally comes the sad or mixed up stage. This stage is a necessary part of “figuring it out” and finding our own explanation for the loss and determining how we will live or cope with this loss. The last stage is the stage of resolution or living with the loss and going on with life. All of these stages seem necessary as a child (or adult) adjust to live without a significant other.

The process of loss (death) is a part of our existence on this planet. When a parent resolves the confusion they may have relative to the loss death brings, then the parent will have the insight needed to assist and guide the child to understand and process the experience of death.

Death becomes scary or fearful only if we give death attributes that were never there. Rather then focusing on the unknown and mysteries of death, parents can focus on the known and comforting aspects of death. Words like peace, rest, beautiful memories; reunion with loved ones, etc. can be used. Children will handle death in the same manner they see their parents handle death. So get your act together before you attempt to help your child.

Talking about death is healthy. It helps a child "think through" the loss that is being faced. When a parent becomes part of this "talking" it provides support and a model for the child. If the child allows you their world, listen, help them keep things in focus. Because death is hard to talk about the child will keep changing topics. Don’t force a child to talk about death if they don not want to but keep the talk on target so that you child will “talk it through.” Have faith that they will eventually come up with their own explanations and ways of coping with death.

The rituals that are part of the death experience help people to let go. Saying good-by to a loved one is an important part of the grieving process. The viewing and funeral traditions that are part of our culture and others can be a very helpful process for the child. If the adult explains the ritual ahead of time the fear of the unknown will be softened. The most difficult part of the process is normally the viewing of the body. One way to help the child conceptualize the difference between the body of a person and the person themselves may be to ask the child to touch or look at the walls of your house. Ask them if this task was a hard thing to do. Explain to them that the body is like the house one lives in. Just because the people that live in a house have left does not mean that the house they left behind should be feared.

A good understanding of life, its purpose, and the importance of a relationship with God will provide the foundation needed to eliminate any fear associated with death. Providing you child with a good spiritual base will enable him or her to recognize who they are, why they are here, and what the great plan for mankind is. If death is just part of a plan provided by a caring and just God, then there is nothing to be afraid of. Peace will prevail and trust in a Supreme Being will eliminate the need to insist on changing a perfect plan designed with us in mind.

Going through the loss experience is not easy if you are a child. But it is a little easier if you can experience this pheromone with someone who has experienced the pain of death and has not “run away” from the grim reality this experience causes us to face. It is easier to face death’s reality hand in hand with someone who has developed a relationship with God and understands His Plan for this earth. It is easier to face death if you are guided by a parent who is calm and sure of who they are. It is easier to face death when your coach is unafraid of death and has developed the patience to help you “figure it out for yourself.”