In Part I of this article, we looked at some ways that both meanings of death – the physical and the religious meanings – could be presented to children. That discussion, however, centered around death in general and didn’t involve explaining the death of someone the child knew. What should an adult tell a child when someone the child has known dies? What kinds of reactions can the adult expect? Should the child be encouraged to attend the funeral and the burial? How can the adult help the child to cope with the loss? There are no simple answers to these questions. Because each child is unique and because all situations vary, adults must try to find the right answers for each child. Finding these right answers depends a lot on the adult’s understanding the child and viewing death through the child’s eyes. In order to do this, adults should consider several factors that usually affect the child’s response to the death of an individual.
One important factor is, of course, the age of the child. How old the child is will affect not only his or her level of understanding but will probably also be a factor in the amount of religious education the child has and other possible experiences with death. The child’s level of understanding will greatly influence how the child will view death. As mentioned in the first part of this article (Sunday’s Child and Death, Part 1), children at various ages have different ideas about death. Between the ages of three and five, for example, children have no real sense of death as a permanent condition; that is, they don’t realize that people who die won’t appear again to resume their normal lives. Consequently, when a child this age is told, for example, that a relative has died, the statement will probably have little effect since the child doesn’t really understand what has happened. This doesn’t mean, however, that the child won’t react at all. What the child will be affected by is the absence of the deceased, by the fact that the deceased simply isn’t there anymore. The age and previous religious training of the child will also influence his or her understanding of the religious meaning of death. Although a very young child has a limited understanding of such abstract ideas as the soul and the afterlife (abstract in the sense that the child can’t see them), some previous exposure to ideas about the soul and the continuance of life after death will help the child better understand what he or she is told about the death of a particular individual. Of course, an older child with greater ability to deal with more abstract ideas and with more religious training will have a less difficult time understanding what he is told. And what the child understands is important since it determines how much consolation he or she can draw from Christian ideas about the meaning of death. Finally, the child’s age will probably also be a factor in his or her previous experience with death. The older children are, the more experience with death. The older children are, the more likely it is that they have had some previous experience with death.
Another factor that affects a child’s response to the news of the death of a particular person is the kind of relationship the child had with that person. The death of a relative that the child never saw very much will, of course, have far less effect on the child than the death of a parent or relative or friend that the child saw often and loved. The death of someone who loved the child and whom the child loved and formed bonds with can not only create a great sense of loss in the child but also threaten his sense of security. To a child experiencing the death of someone close for the first time, the sudden realization of the uncertainties of all relationships and the tenuousness of life can be rather shattering.
Emotional needs also greatly affect the child’s response to death. Adults and children alike share a basic need to love and be loved and to feel secure in life. The fears children have about the loss of love and security take different forms at different ages. Very young children have a strong fear of separation from their parents, and absence of their parents for even short periods can cause very young children a great deal of anxiety simply because they aren’t sure their parents will return. Consequently, the loss of a parent or another important person in their lives can be a very frightening experience, since it seems like the end of love and security for the children. Children between five and eight also have strong separation worries, but there are often mixed with ideas about punishment. Guilt feelings about wrongdoings often cause children at this stage to fear that they will be punished by the loss of one or both parents, and children may interpret the death of a parent as punishment for their having done something wrong. In older children guilt over not having treated the deceased as kindly or as fairly as possible may add to the burden of trying to adjust to the loss.
The child’s emotional state can also be important in how the child will react to the death of someone. Children, like adults, are at some times better able to cope with problems than at other times. Although adults often feel that children don’t have any “real” problems, the problems are very real to the child. For example, a child trying to cope with the arrival of a new baby in the house and the fact that his parents have less time to devote to him because of the new baby may turn to a grandparent for extra love and attention. Should the grandparent die, the child may have an especially difficult time adjusting to the loss, since it seems like a double one to him. Or a teenager facing the prospect of making career decisions and entering a new phase of life may feel especially the loss of someone who has always provided love and support and guidance.
How can understanding the child’s mental abilities and emotional needs and emotional state help an adult in telling the child about the death of someone? These factors can, for one thing, be taken into account by the adult in trying to determine how the child may interpret what he or she is told. The Church often uses the term “fallen asleep” for one who has died, but young children often take this phrase very literally, either causing them to expect the deceased to wake up and return or causing them to fear sleep because they may never wake up again. Consequently, it is wise not to use the term with very young children to avoid any misunderstanding about the possibilities of the deceased’s returning to life on this earth. Telling a child that the deceased “has gone on a long trip” is also often taken literally by the child, causing the child, again, to expect the deceased to return. Explaining to the child that the deceased was such a good person that God took him or her away can cause much confusion in children. There are several erroneous conclusions a child can draw from such an explanation. One is that only good people die – which is not only false but can cause a child to wonder about the people who are left. Another conclusion is that God is a very frightening being who can take away anybody’s life at any time. This can cause a child a great deal of worry about the possible deaths of other people he considers to be good. The explanation that God loved the deceased so much that He took him or her away can cause equal confusion in the mind of a child. Because the child also loved the deceased, he may judge God’s act as being very unfair. The child’s own feelings of powerlessness to keep the loved one and the power of God who can “take” away those He loves will appear to be a very uneven conflict and may cause the child to feel resentment and hostility toward God.
If these are the things that a child should not be told, what should the child be told? Generally speaking, regardless of the age of the child, the death of the individual should be explained simply and directly: the fact that the person is dead, the cause of death – whether by accident or illness, etc. However, the explanations should be geared to the understanding and needs of the child. Only those details which the child can understand should be presented. The adult should try to be especially supportive to lessen fears of abandonment or guilt feelings. This support can be non-verbal as well as verbal; simply embracing a child and making him feel that someone cares very much about him can make him feel better able to accept the loss. Religious explanations should be geared to the understanding and the previous religious training of the child. For very young children, the idea that the spirit of the deceased still lives may be confusing; therefore, special care should be taken to clarify that the body is dead but the spirit lives; that the deceased will not return, but his or her spirit is still alive in a special place. The older the child and the more religious training he has had, the more complicated and detailed the explanations can be. The adult, however, should avoid presenting an afterlife for which there is no theological basis. The fact that we haven’t many concrete details about the afterlife should not cause adults to invent details to answer children’s questions or to provide what adults feel to be a picture of the afterlife that will make children feel better. Children should not be told things they will later have to unlearn.
In dealing with the reactions of children to death, it is important for adults to remember that intellectual understanding is not the same as emotional acceptance. Even when a child understands everything that he or she is told, the child still needs time to really accept explanations which have been given. The loss of parents especially creates crisis since such losses cause changes in the lives of all family members. No matter how gentle and supportive adults have been, children may react in a variety of ways to what they have been told. Some children may cry, and others may not. Very young children may regress or become more “babyish,” thus requiring more help and attention from adults. Some children may simply deny that the deceased is dead. Other children may become resentful and hostile, either toward everyone in general or certain people in particular. Still other children may want to talk about the deceased and death. Whatever the child’s reaction, it is important for adults to remember that different children express their feelings in different ways, and they should be allowed to express their feelings in different ways, and they should be allowed to express their feelings as long as this expression is not harmful to others. What adults should not do is expect behavior of children that is impossible for them to accomplish. Adults should keep in mind that reactions are symptoms of deeper feelings – whether of fear or panic or uncertainty. These are the real problems that adults must help children come to terms with and solve, and the terms must be those that are, in large measure, appropriate to the children involved. If a child cries, he or she should not be told that big boys or big girls don’t cry, because keeping grief bottled up inside may simply be another burden to the child. On the other hand, if a child doesn’t cry, he or she should not be reprimanded for not doing so by an adult who feels that true sorrow is expressed only through tears. If a child wishes to talk about the deceased or about death, adults should not dismiss the wish with the excuse that doing so would only upset the child. Remembering the deceased in both happy and unhappy times and expressing anxieties and feelings may be the child’s way of understanding what has happened and coming to terms with it. If, however, children keep crying for weeks or if they keep withdrawing from life or if their hostile behavior persists and becomes a problem or if they are able to speak about little but the deceased or death, then professional help should be sought because, evidently, children with such prolonged reactions are having trouble adjusting to their loss.
Many adults are uncertain whether to allow children to visit the funeral home or to attend the funeral and burial. The decision depends a great deal on the child. Very young children may become upset either by the reactions of the adults around them or by seeing the deceased or watching the casket closed or lowered into the ground. The child’s emotional state and ability to accept these things is the deciding factor. However, many child psychologists feel that children from the age of seven should not only be allowed to attend the funeral and burial but should be encouraged to attend (this again depends on the child’s emotional state). Children are, after all, part of the family and should be included in all important events that happen to it. Paying last respects to the deceased and simply standing united as a family in times of loss as well as in times of happiness are things that shouldn’t be denied children. They need to feel a part of the family and to learn that bonds are often very lasting things.
Even after the funeral and the burial, there are many ways that children can be encouraged to show their love and respect for the dead. In the Church service for the dead, we promise eternal memory, and this is something that children need to learn – that our love and concern for the dead does not end with the burial. Prayers and services for the dead, tending the graves of the dead, and other acts of remembrance can help the child get a sense of the continuance of life, in addition to the sense of concern for the individual.
(Reprinted from The Word, April 1998. The author is the late Donna Bobin.)