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How to Explain Death to Your Child

Around the world, people were shocked and saddened by the death of Robin Williams, particularly when it was revealed that he had committed suicide. Because Williams was well-known for his roles in family movies, many children, including my own, had questions and concerns. September is Suicide Prevention Month, so now is a good time to share some valuble tips on handling the subject of death with your kids.

We talked to three experts in the field of childhood grief: Matthew Lorber, acting director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City; Emily Touchstone of the University of Texas at Dallas; and Shannon Karl, a member of the American Counseling Association. We asked them to address three common circumstances: expected death, such as after a long illness; sudden death; and suicide. The experts agreed that the most important thing is to listen to your children and consider their age before attempting to explain the situation.

Lorber says that because children are so perceptive, if an adult doesn't explain a death to them, they will create a story in their own mind. Touchstone agrees: "Children handle grief differently than adults," she says. "Many adults believe children are too young to understand the gravity of death, but dismissing children's perceptive abilities is a mistake."

Karl says that before age 6, most children believe death is temporary. At ages 6-9, they begin to understand that it's final. Sometime around 9 years old, most children have an understanding of death that's similar to adults'. Keep your explanations at their age level and let them know that asking questions is fine.

Dr. Touchstone says the five universally accepted stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—are part of the Kubler-Ross Model, which was based on the pioneering work of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

"Like adults, children may work through these stages in managing their loss, but the timeline can vary greatly," Touchstone says. "It is not uncommon to see children bounce back after the loss of a loved one, only to encounter moments of despair years later. Support for the child is imperative."

Expected death

Remember to keep explanations age-appropriate, Karl says. Explain why so much time has to be devoted to this person while allowing the child to help as much or as little as they want. The child may have feelings similar to that of having a new sibling, especially if their primary caregiver is also the caregiver for the sick person.

"Consider seeking an ongoing support group in order to foster connectedness and universality," Karl says.

She also says children may not react as their families expect them to: "Remember that a child's brain processes events differently than an adult brain, and understand that the impact of the loss may be delayed and/or come in stages."

Sudden death

Karl suggests explaining to the child that death is part of the life cycle and that sometimes it happens unexpectedly.

"Avoid using euphemisms such as 'a long sleep' or 'a big trip,' as this may confuse children and make them fearful of bedtime, car rides, etc.," Karl says.

Lorber says that while all children don't need counseling after a death, if you notice a distinct change in behavior or if the child becomes very depressed, seek professional help.

"Access to counseling services is recommended, even if just for assessment of need. An ideal counselor/therapist should specialize in working with children (many specialize in working specifically with grieving children)," Karl says.

Suicide

"With suicide, the primary question is 'why,' and the only person who has the answer is no longer around to provide it. Parents must acknowledge that they have the same questions and do not have the answers. Explain the death as honestly as possible while avoiding details that will be frightening for the child," Dr. Touchstone says.

For younger children, Karl suggests saying the person 'died from suicide' instead of 'commited suicide' to be more clear. She adds that suicide "can be described to children as resulting from the brain being sick, just like other organs in the body can be sick." Again, use your judgment as to what is appropriate for their age.

Many parents worry that their child will feel guilty for the death in some way. Lorber says that while not all children blame themselves for a death, some do, especially if they were harboring bad feelings toward the person before they died.

"It is important for a caregiver to explain to the child what happened and reassure a child it is not their fault if the child suggests that it is," Lorber says.

Tips for explaining any death

The experts offer a few tips that are helpful in all cases:

  • Validate your child's feelings. "Children may experience deep sorrow or anger to possible curiosity or even excitement," Karl says.
  • Keep children on their regular schedule if possible. Any sense of stability makes them feel more comfortable.
  • Prepare them: "Let them know in detail what the funeral is going to be like; give them the option of attending; and have someone with them the entire time to provide support," Lorber says.
  • Consider age-appropriate books about death. "Little Ladybird Lost" by Lynne Burton is a new book for young children that helps explain an expected death of a loved one. The website Grief Speaks offers books for each type of death for children, teens and adults who need help explaining death to children.
  • Commemorate the person lost with a special project, such as making a memory book, releasing a message balloon or making a small pillow from the person's clothing.
  • Take care of yourself, so you can help your child. Seek help if you need it.

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