Explaining illness and death to a child
Currently, 7.6 million people die from cancer every year and 15,000 from drug related deaths. Death creates emotional trauma for family members and loved ones. Dealing with both illness and the possible resulting death of this disease or the accidental death from an overdose is an incredible task for children. Helping children understand and cope with the death of a parent, sibling or friend can be difficult. A child is bound to get emotional. Explaining death in the most tactful and understanding way could help them learn that life goes on after a parent’s death:
- Ask them what they know – “How do you think Mom is doing?” This helps gauge how much the child understands about the situation so far. Clinical psychologist Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D. explains, “Children are very sensitive to the emotional moods and nonverbal communications of adults around them, and they sense when a parent (or other relative, or a teacher) is upset even if these adults think that they are unaware of what may be happening”.
- Be honest- Tell the child the treatment is no longer working. Ask the child what he or she thinks will happen after treatment ends. If they don’t know, tell them the parent will no longer live. Don’t leave out important information. Nowinski found in his studies a high number of children who felt deprived of knowledge during a critical time in mourning. Sparing them all the details could lead to more unresolved feelings later on, which could lead to more anxiety concerning their lost loved one and even death itself.
- Use proper language – As tempting as it sounds to tell a child their parent is “going to sleep” or “passing away,” it is best to avoid these phrases. This kind of language can create negative associations in the mind of a child. They may become afraid of going to sleep at night and never waking up. As silly as this may sound to an adult, a child often has difficulty understanding euphemisms. Complete honesty is worth the effort even if it brings up more painful questions, such as the nature of death and dying. Educate and trust children, as they can be resilient.
- Explain death – Death is a tricky concept for healthy adults to grasp. This makes it a daunting task to explain it to children. Keep it simple for them. Phrases like: “Death means the person will no longer be physically present in our lives” and “They will no longer be with us as they were before, but we still have memories of them” are practical words that get the message across.
- Hope for the best, prepare for the worst – Children have difficulty expressing their emotions in a healthy way. As such, they could lash out in response to the terrible news. Try not to get upset at their reaction. It is normal. Another typical reaction is denial. They may ask the same question again later on, hoping for a different response. Try and remain patient with them throughout the process, no matter how challenging.
It is normal for both parents and children to feel lost after the death of their loved one. Parents might not know how to handle single parenthood or how to emotionally function after the death of their significant other. Here at Sovereign Health Group of California in Rancho San Diego, our team understands the difficulty of losing a loved one and how it affects young people. The risk of depression is high after this event and we are ready to help. To get started with our depression treatment program, don’t hesitate to call us at 866-615-7266.
Written by Nicholas Ruiz, Sovereign Health Group writer