Preschooler

Difficult topic: death through the eyes of a child


Dorota: Death is a difficult subject, especially for a small child ...

Joanna Giereło: Death is a difficult topic for both children and adults. Children due to age have limitations of loss perception determined by the stage of development, while adults have numerous doubts regarding the initiation of children in the subject of death for fear of negative impact on children's development, from the need to protect the child from experiencing sadness and pain. Fear is also related to children's questions that parents will not be able to answer. Then adults most often avoid such conversations, distract the child's attention.

Well ... finally parents in the process of education master the art of distracting the child to perfection. Is death the wrong way about death?

J.G.: Parents will not save children from experiencing loss, sooner or later the child will experience it. The adult's task is not to make the child go through these emotions as soon as possible, so that he quickly starts to smile again. The parent's task is to accompany the child through this loss and help express sadness after the loss.

So how can you express sadness after loss? What to suggest to your toddler? Conversation alone, are the words enough?

J.G.: Yes, among other things a conversation in which an adult is ready to talk about death, answers to countless and recurring questions from the child, remembering the deceased. To express sadness also means being open to all the child's emotions, including anger and fear. Openness is also associated with forms of play that can occur at this time, such as drawing the sky, angels, but also playing with dolls at a funeral, digging a grave that scares many parents, and which is a process of taming difficult reality. If a parent or someone in the family is ready, they can accompany the child in such play, call what the child does, without criticizing, without moralizing, without saying what he should.

Don't push and get your child to talk if they don't want to. To sum up: conversation is certainly the basis, but also physical and emotional closeness, attention to the child.

Well, let's talk about specific situations. How to behave when on a walk the three-year-old asks what happened to the bird lying on the side of the road? It would be better to say "the bird went to sleep" or "the bird will never fly again because it was sick and dead."
J.G.: The situation you described may be a good moment to raise this difficult topic with your child.
The basic rule is to tell the truth. When we tell a three-year-old boy that he has fallen asleep, he will literally understand it and most likely ask when he wakes up. When a parent tells him never, the child may not properly associate sleep with death and become anxious about bedtime. A similar situation is with the disease. Not all of them lead to death, but a child is often sick, and many people in his environment are sick. "Dead" is the right word. It is worth showing the child why: "The bird does not breathe, does not move, does not chirp, does not feel anything. When something dies, it won't come back to life. If the bird were sleeping, we would be able to wake him up. " This explanation for a 3-year-old child will be understandable - clear and specific.

So what words are best to use when talking to a child about death?
J.G.: It's best to use direct and clear words. "Died", "died", "dead" The parent uses euphemisms to soften the word death. A 3-year-old child will literally understand our words. You will be nervous when we say that someone will not come back to us, it is incomprehensible to the child. The words "lost", "left us", "gone", "sleeps" should be avoided.

Another example. I remember my childhood situation. We had a few weeks a little dog who got sick. He suffered a lot. As a five-year-old six-year-old, I stroked a squeaky beloved quadruped. The brothers were not at home when the decision was finally made. Dad took the dog to the vet. He came back alone. Parents told us that they gave the dog because he was very sick and must remain in the dog's hospital. I don't remember any further translations ... I just remember the brothers in it
they believed the translation, and because I saw the whole situation (I watched my parents' faces), I knew that the dog would not come back to us. What could be done in this particular situation?
J.G.: Tell the truth that the animal has died. In this situation, I would advise the pooch to come home so that the children have the opportunity to see the pet, which will allow them to accept the reality of death (through which the child must go through to cope with the loss) and allow them to go through another difficult emotions and learn that children they can experience and cope with them. It would be a good time to carry out a burial ceremony, bury in a box decorated by children, put flowers or even plant them in this place. Such a ceremony will allow you to express sadness and crying, but also will let you experience the moment during which for the last time we will do something nice for the animal and talk about him, we will remember the nice and important moments in which the dog accompanied the family and we will tell ourselves how much and why it will be we missed him. It teaches a child how to deal with sadness, how to express their emotions and shows the positive power that is shared in experiencing and sharing pain.

This may not wait until the animal dies, but warn that one day it will happen?
J.G.: Such conversations are very important indeed. There are many opportunities for them (a visit to the cemetery, the death of an animal met in the park) is a question about our readiness to engage in such talks.

As I mentioned, it is important to speak about death clearly, without euphemisms, adequate to age. For two, three, four-year-olds it is worth talking about death based on life functions that will cease (breathing, moving, eating, speaking).

One of our readers asked: how to deal with the situation when the mother of a 2.5 boy leaves. The child is still about her he asks, he calls. What to do?

J.G.: The answer is not easy, because there is not enough information in the question. Crying and questions are a natural part of mourning. It depends on how long it lasts, what were the circumstances of death, what has been explained to the child so far, what the funeral looked like, whether the child participated in it, whether he had the opportunity to say goodbye, do something for mom, how now adults behave and react on the child's behavior, how the girl's father copes in this situation and whether he is supporting her or whether he needs it especially now.
If a false explanation for her departure had been given, I would have fixed it. I would visit the grave of my mother and child, I would do something for her (drawing, making something from plasticine). I would recommend reading therapeutic fairy tales (of which there are a lot on the market today) to let the child identify with the hero and experience this difficult situation with him.

Is there such a stage in the child's life when the toddler is particularly afraid deaths of your parents?
J.G.: Children most often fear the death of a parent around 6/7 years of age. From about the second to the fourth year of life, children are developmentally in the preoperative stage of cognitive development, which affects the belief in the temporality of death, the child thinks that who has died will come back to life. Hence, at this age, a child may search for the deceased and ask about him. Children think magically, thinking that some objects or people have power over others and can influence them. Having a highly developed egocentrism, they attribute to themselves the influence of their thoughts and emotional states on what is happening with other people. So they may be convinced that their bad thoughts or behavior has affected their death.

From the fifth year, children are becoming aware that death is final, but at around 7-9 years of age (which is at the stage of concrete operations), a breakthrough can be seen in understanding death and its universality. Knowing that death will affect every living organism, including the child and his parents.

Around 9/10, children begin to understand death as adults, but they still need the support of an adult in mourning.

I understood correctly: therefore, a 3-year-old may blame himself for the death of his beloved grandmother. Thinking that grandma died because he didn't eat all the soup, was he rude and running away on a walk? Such a toddler can be troubled by remorse?
J.G.: Exactly. In the eyes of the child, his bad thought of grandmother, anger to her could kill her. That is why it is necessary to listen and react to such words, explain to the child that it does not persist in such a destructive belief.

In such a situation, just talking?
J.G.: Talking, hugging a child, showing him that mom and dad sometimes get angry at other people, but nothing happens to them because thoughts don't kill. It is necessary to show the child that it is natural that we are sometimes rude, we get angry, but this is never a reason to die. Here it is worth quoting real-life examples, stepping back into the past, reminding the child of past situations in which anger and rudeness did not end in anyone's death.

Should the child attend funerals, where he will be in direct contact with tears, despair ... From what age can you consider taking your child to this ceremony?
J.G.: There is no specific age limit for the child's participation in the funeral, but there are a number of indications for adults who can help in the proper experience of this ceremony.

First of all, the child throughout the ceremony should remain under the care of an adult who will be able to devote attention to the child. An adult focused on his emotions will not give a child a sense of security and support at this difficult moment. If we think that we will not be adequate support for the child, if our emotional reactions are very strong, it is worth looking for someone in the close environment who is connected with the child who will be able to take care of the child's emotions, hug, be and answer questions.

How to prepare a child for the funeral of a loved one?
J.G.: Before the ceremony, an adult should warn and tell the child as simply and as clearly as possible what will happen in turn in the church and in the cemetery. How others can react during a funeral (sadness, crying, despair), but also what behaviors (tears, stomach ache) and emotions may appear in the child himself, what the child will be able to do, how he will be able to say goodbye.
Attending funerals, including young children, is very important in dealing with sadness. Burial and seeing the body help to realize the reality of death and to close this experience and show that death is an irreversible fact. However, if the parents decide not to take the child to the funeral, it is worth telling the child about the course of the ceremony.
If the death did not involve a person in the immediate vicinity of the child, the parent can use this situation to talk about death.

Attending a funeral gives you the opportunity to see the deceased, say goodbye to him, which affects the development of the child's belief that the person is already dead.

Many parents are of the opinion that the child should remember his grandmother alive, not the body that changes after death ... that's why he doesn't let him come close to the casket in the chapel ...

J.G.: Which, in turn, does not allow the child to understand the reality of grandmother's death. This stage is not closed in the child's life and prolong mourning. Often, the child's fantasy suggests images that are much more terrible than the reality that he would find in the chapel.
Limiting meetings in the chapel is understandable when a person died tragically and the body is significantly damaged.

What about when parents die? What can the child's reaction be?
J.G.: Children's responses to death can vary. They depend on the closeness of the child's relationship with the guardian, on developmental age, but also on the individual characteristics of the child, and even the nature of death. Therefore, these behaviors do not have to be the same.

In toddlers (around 2-5 years old) it is often difficult to see sadness. You may have the wrong impression that they don't care about death. Behaviors may be visible chaos, regressive behavior, i.e. going back to the previous stage of development like sticking to a skirt, the need to sleep with a parent, which can be allowed for some time. Other children may burst into tears, they may cry a lot at all. Reactions also often appear only after a few months, when the family situation begins to stabilize and the child has a sense of security after months of destabilization.

The child may have denial of the situation, withdrawal, unwillingness to take action, but also anger at the parent who has died or who remained. There may be concerns about the health and life of the other parent, i.e. anxiety reactions, difficulty separating from the living parent. A child may feel guilty, fear of not accepting his peers ("because I have a different way than my colleagues", "I am different"). At an older age (8-12 years old), a child may experience rebellion understood as "difficult behaviors", behind which there is a sense of powerlessness, phobias, and hypochondrial behavior. There may be learning problems, difficulty concentrating.

These behaviors and emotional reactions are often accompanied by somatic reactions such as sleep disorders, appetite, problems with the toilet.

How can we help you?

J.G.: Most children will cope with the loss of a loved one by receiving emotional support, attention, warmth, closeness and a sense of security from their immediate surroundings.

How can you help? By giving your child real explanations in a comprehensible, concrete way (avoiding euphemisms about death that confuse the child's head), don't hide your feelings from the child.

The child will naturally ask numerous questions on this subject (often very prosaic as e.g. what the dead will eat). Let the child show his feelings even those that we do not like (especially related to anger towards the deceased) and patiently explain, remembering that the difficult reactions of children are not due to the fact that the child is bad or can not behave, but is natural reaction to mourning.

Let the child experience extreme feelings without criticizing and not Karajan for anger, fears, crying, sadness. Don't say how you should feel. Let him express his feelings, accept them. Tell your child what he or she may feel and how he / she may behave in connection with death and it is natural that he / she feels this way. Accept that the child will not always want to talk about their emotions. The need for conversation / fun about death often comes in stages.

The child will come back to this topic, be prepared for the fact that the topic of death after some silence will come back (also in play, drawings - which, as I said before, is the child's natural way to work through difficult subjects).

Parents often hide their emotions from their children. Denying feelings. Unnecessary, because in this way the parent gives a signal that nothing has happened. The topic of death becomes a taboo subject, and the child learns that emotions need to be suppressed, which can affect the child's attitude of withdrawal and inhibit its further development. The parent's crying gives the child permission to express emotions. Give the child a sense of security - ensure that the family will continue to exist, and the parent who remained with the child is healthy and will look after him. Talk to the child about the deceased when he needs it. It's a natural way of dealing with loss and mourning. It is worth showing the child that we feel pain now, but it will decrease with time. And although there is a lot of sadness, there will be days when the family will be cheerful again.

Talk about heaven, life after life?
J.G.: The Catholic religion actually gives the opportunity to explain at least a partial mystery of death and life. By presenting your child with a vision of a better place to which a loved one has gone, the desire to join may arise. But religion also says that God decides who and when goes there. If we are deeply rooted in Catholic culture, you can go to a friend of the priest who has good contact with children, ask for help in explaining this matter to the child.
It is worth teaching the child that not all questions are answered by the parent and other people. It is difficult to explain especially when a parent or sibling dies at a young age.

It is helpful for children to explain that everything that lives will one day die. However, even though the body is dead and you can't hug that person, she still lives in us, in our memories and thoughts.

The death of a loved one is a very difficult experience. It's a good idea to tame your child with this topic on slightly smaller examples. Observation of nature (plants come to life and die), death situations of pets.
It is worth supporting the aforementioned fairy-tale literature, which can be an excuse to raise this topic (when it does not appear directly in the child's environment), a clue to gently tame the child with the topic of loss and how you can think about it, what you experience and what makes it a bit easier her experience.

How to respond to such words, "Mom, I don't want you to die. Promise you won't die ... "
J.G.: It is difficult to fulfill such a promise ... and even more difficult to say at such a moment that death affects each of us. I would say, "I intend to live a long life. I take care of myself, I am healthy and I want to have a lot of opportunities to play with you, draw and have fun. "

When does a visit to a psychologist become necessary?
J.G.: Certainly not in a short time from the moment of death, because it is difficult to assess what is a natural reaction in a situation of mourning and what is not. What should worry is not the type of reaction, but the intensity of its experience.
In the case of toddlers, if we notice that the child constantly denies death for several months, pretends that nothing happened, if he blames himself for death despite the explanations of adults, he feels worthless, if he ceases to engage in existing interests, he constantly experiences a feeling of sadness. Excessive apathy, withdrawal, or irritability, aggression, constant anger at the deceased or family may be worrying, when the child is not involved in play, this is a signal to contact a specialist. It is worth considering such a decision also in the event that the somatic symptoms that I mentioned earlier do not go away.

If the topic is very difficult for us and we really do not have the strength to talk to the child about the death of a loved one, what can we make your toddler not feel lost and rejected?
J.G.: When a loved one dies, usually it is also a close person for other family members and the whole family experiences mourning. Sometimes the pain after losing your spouse is so severe, an adult may experience severe long-term depression. It is difficult for him to cope with his emotions, he withdraws, he is emotionally inaccessible. As a consequence, the toddler feels rejected and lonely both by the parent who has passed away and the one who remained. The parent may feel guilty because he neglects to take care of the child. In such a situation, you should realistically look at your own abilities and allow yourself to experience mourning, being in a bad emotional form for some time. The help that a parent can give to a child is also permission to rely on the help of others for some time. To look in the family, among friends or in a close neighbor, someone who will take care of the child's emotions, help him go through a certain stage of mourning until the parent is able to deal with his pain.

The child should be honestly told that these are difficult moments for a parent and he cannot take care of the child as he would like. It must be ensured that it is not the child's fault and that the parent is now trying to help himself and will be sad for some time, but that it will pass and in a while the parent will be able to fully take care of the child again. This approach of the parent shows the child that both the parent and himself, are experiencing very difficult moments, that they have the right to feel and show pain and sadness, which in itself already has therapeutic properties.

A parent wanting to protect a child from danger may instill fear in him. It is worth realizing such situations and if it is difficult for us to deal with them, it is worth having a parent consult a psychologist, psychotherapist or psychiatrist.

Joanna Giereło
Psychologist, children and youth therapist at the DIALOG Therapy Center. Every day, she conducts individual psychotherapy and psychoeducation classes for children and youth, psychological diagnosis as well as psychological counseling and support for parents.