Children can pick up on our grief, though they may not be able to comprehend its root cause or process the complexities of our emotions when someone close to us passes away. Even non-verbal children understand if their aunt, grandmother or cousin is no longer around, says Kathy Walsh, founder of Peace Place for Kids and author of the Joyohboy children's and meditation book series. It’s important we don’t attempt to hide the truth from them.
“I believe that even kids as young as those attending preschool shouldn’t be shielded from death,” Walsh says. "When there is a death in the family, everyone feels it, including children. They know something is up when the whole family dresses in black to attend a funeral.
"They will see other loved ones in mourning and crying, and if you hide that from them they will have many questions. It can cause children to become confused and scared. If they experience death at a young age it’s okay.”
When a child is very young, first discussions about death can center around wildlife, which will get them used to the idea that everything is born, lives and dies, and that there is nothing unnatural or odd about it. Because children are excellent observers but often lack communication skills to express their feelings, Walsh encourages parents to speak about what’s happening so that children don’t create their own scenarios of death, which is often much worse. First and foremost, resist the protective parent’s temptation to tell them they shouldn’t worry about death or that you’ll tell them about it when they’re older — Walsh says this will only cause confusion and worry.
“You don’t want to hide death from children but you also don’t want to be confrontational and scare them,” Walsh says. "Reading books that deal with the subject of death is a great way to begin the conversation. For instance, in my book, Tara’s Message, we talk about that you are always connected to those that passed away through your heart, that you are never without them, even if the physical body isn’t there, your spirit goes on.”
Walsh recommends teaching a child to close their eyes, picture their heart and send their heart to the person that passed away. "Another idea is to do what I’ve done with my kids: to plant something in the garden like bulbs and every year as it grows and blooms, they can remember Grandma or whoever passed away.”
Unsure of whether all of this means your 6-year-old is ready to attend the funeral of a loved one? It’s your call to make, depending on how emotionally ready you feel your child is, but Walsh says there is no one appropriate age in which to bring a child to a wake or funeral. Observing adults as they mourn and release their emotions in a healthy manner may be one of the best teachable moments we can give our kids.
If your older child suddenly realizes that he or she is also going to die one day, try not to overreact or lie to comfort them — despite how jarring the thought.
“This is where you have to work on yourself,” Walsh says. “Children are not afraid if you’re not afraid. It’s a sad and difficult time when our loved ones pass, but it’s OK to feel those feelings and show our children that they can feel upset and sad as well. If they are expressing fear, then it’s okay to be afraid. Always encourage them to feel their feelings and express them. Children need to mourn as well. Explain to them that even if their loved one is physically gone, their spirit is alive. Do activities to help your children remember their loved ones like making collages of photos and memories of them.”
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