The most important things you can do to help children understand and cope with death are:
“Often mothers and fathers feel that they only can answer their children’s questions in the 'right' way, or say and do the 'right' things, then their children will not suffer. Yet parents also know that there are no satisfactory answers to their own questions, no instant cure for their own grief and that the same is true for their children”
Children see, hear and notice everything related to the death/loss event. They sense the feelings of members of their families and are aware of the smallest changes in their parents' behaviour. A 9-year-old reported that her dad "did not seem to notice what he said, and read a lot more books than usual".
Children remember many details of a death event for years – even from ages as young as three or four years.
Children may want to think again about the experience long after the event and it may become important to them at later stages in their lives as they develop new understanding and new perspectives on the world. Recently a friend spoke to me about her married 24-year-old daughter who had wanted to talk again about the baby sister's death she remembered from 20 years ago because she was now thinking of starting a family.
Children want to help their parent feel better and they worry about them. No matter how hard parents try, these feelings can't seem to be prevented. A 9-year-old boy explained it, "mom was cracking up a bit from the sadness".
Children don't like being told that everything is "OK". They know that it isn't. They want the "real" facts and to be talked to "like adults". A young boy said to me, "I was told that she had died of 'old age'. I did not get the real facts like how she died and where".
Children are endlessly curious and the younger they are the less inhibited they will be about displaying this curiosity,'. It is usually hard for parents who are themselves grieving to be prepared for and respond to children's questions about the colour of dead, whether dead babies can cry and a host of other potentially awkward questions.
Because they know their questions can make their parents sad, children often stop asking questions which reflect their true concerns thinking that this is one way to help their parents feel better. A young girl explained it this way: "If mom spoke a little while it wouldn't hurt, but if she spoke a long while she'd get very upset. I didn't want to ask most of my questions." And one of the boys said, "I was too young to think of anything to do to help dad. I tried not to talk too much about it because he would have got more upset."
After children appear to stop talking about the death or asking questions, it is easy to assume that they are over ' their feelings about the event. In fact they reported that they continued to think, worry and dream about what happened for a long time.
Many children said they thought their parents had "gotten over" the sad event because discussions had stopped. They seemed to feel that adults had special skills they didn't have which enabled them to put the events out of their minds. A little girl told me, "Dad can do something I can't and put it out of his mind. He can read books, maybe that helps."
Dr. Carol Irizarry
Flinders University, Adelaide, Social Work Department