Aleteia

COVID-19: How to explain death to your children

Child and Mother Upset
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How can we help children come to terms with this tragedy without concealing reality?

For weeks now children have been confronted with the image of death on TV and computer screens. Covid-19 has carried away numerous lives. But when it strikes down someone dear and near us, the tragedy becomes truly devastating. Even more so than in the life of an adult, death is a calamity in a life of a child. The sense of grief felt by bereaving children is largely underestimated.

Realizing that death is inevitable

First, you need to understand what goes through the minds of children. Their image of death is very different from that of adults. To little ones, death is like a temporary absence. “Do you think Grandpa’s gone forever?” With the idea that death is temporary, children may talk to the dead, maintaining a real relationship with them that they keep secret from the rest of the family. It’s only around the age of seven that children finally realize the permanence of death. For bereaved children, death of a loved one becomes an obstacle, because of the realization that they will never see the person they love again. “It’s always very emotional when a bereaved child shares with you this realization on irreversibility of death,” observes French child-psychiatrist Guy Cordier.

“I don’t really get it,” admits a little girl, “Isn’t there life after death?” Then it dawns on her that all people die. Death is inevitable but it’s still associated with old age. People die when they are old. As far as children are concerned, it’s an eternity. There remains one final discovery, children learn and it’s that they, too, can die at any moment. Death spares no one, not even children.

When a death occurs, the family may assume that a child feels nothing. Children primarily live in the present, playing, and laughing. They need to be guided through troubling times. Children need to be told the truth. They must hear that the person they loved died from a disease or in an accident instead of being told that “they’ve passed away or fallen asleep.” Such paraphrasing plunges children into the greatest of confusions – making them hope against hope that the person they love will return. 

Learning how to remember

“After my dad died, he was scarcely mentioned,” says Kyle. Many kids are unfortunately deprived of remembrance, the possibility to mention and remember the deceased, to look at pictures, to keep the bond alive. “To preserve our psychological balance we need this bond,” warns Dr. Cordier. But most grieving children are deprived of this experience. No one wants to bother them. However, grieving is necessary.

To help children surmount this tragedy, it’s important to encourage their memories: make a photo album, a memory box, pay attention to dates, when the person might be especially missed. Help the child write down his or her own recollection of the deceased. Years will pass and having grown up, they will retrieve this data concerning a mom, dad, sibling, or grandparent that they didn’t get to know. “We still love them. We never forget them, they remain in our hearts,” is the message to pass on to a grieving child.

Problems that grieving children encounter most often

Finally, as surprising as it might seem, many children feel a profound sense of guilt over the death of someone close to them. They are rarely conscious of this guilt, which often surfaces in their dreams or in behavioral problems as they try to punish themselves or in depression,” says Dr Cordier. It is important that you tell children that they are not responsible for the death of their loved one. Nothing they did, thought or said, could have caused it.

Difficulty grasping the objective reality of death, to remember the deceased, and the feeling of guilt are the most common problems encountered by children in grief. To help them, it is vital to let them express themselves without fear. All children must know that it’s normal to feel angry, guilty, and ashamed, and that it’s important to express these feelings. As adults we must encourage them to talk about the person who passed away, otherwise these sentiments will compel them to build an emotional wall.  

We must pay attention to children’s feelings, to the physical and verbal expression of grief.  In talking and listening to them, we demonstrate how important they are to us and help them to move through their grieving process. The pain that accompanies loss never goes away entirely, but grieving is not a disease, it’s a healing process.  

Magalie Michel