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Do not try to "protect" your children, or yourself, from the emotional pain you might experience by telling them about a death. In efforts to protect, parents actually aid in handicapping their children from being able to handle death and grief in a healthy manner (Wolfelt, 1998). The best time to tell children about a death in the family is before a death actually occurs. Talking about death is much easier for everyone when there is no death to yet grieve. Many times though, this is not possible when a death comes unexpectedly. Whenever death occurs, the basic rule of thumb is to tell a child as soon as possible (Dougy Center, 1999a, p.6).
Children will feel the most comfortable if they are in a familiar place when they are told of a death. It is worth taking the extra time to tell children when they are at home or in some other familiar setting. It is not best to ask a doctor or nurse at the hospital to tell children that their loved one has died. A trusted family member should tell the children face-to-face in a calm setting. "When children get the news from a stranger, what is already a painful moment is sometimes made worse" (Dougy Center, 1999a, p.7).
Even though infants and toddlers do not yet understand death, they do understand separation from a primary caregiver. When someone close dies, they need the security and comfort in knowing that they will be taken care of. Keeping them on the same eating and sleeping schedule as before the death will help to give them security. They may cry more than normal, so paying special attention to them and holding them more will also help to give them the assurance they need. When possible, minimizing changes in caregivers is also helpful.
Young children do not quickly understand the finality of death. They think in very concrete terms. It takes time for the reality to settle in their young minds. Therefore, the patient repetition of the facts will help to make the finality of the death more of a reality to them. Expect to answer the same questions many times. Speak freely with them about the death and continually reassure them that you love them and will take care of them.
From the ages of 6 to 12, children can be expected to ask a lot of hard questions about a death. Answer their questions honestly and directly. Do not leave answers to their imaginations; that can be far worse than the truth. Be prepared to hear some seemingly strange or intense questions. It is all in their honest attempt to learn and understand what has happened. Magical thinking is common during this age also. This is when children believe they caused the death because of something they said, thought, or did (Dougy Center, 1997). For example, a boy might get in trouble for hitting an older sister and wish that "she would just drop dead". When she dies in a car accident a few weeks later he might think his wish came true. Children may feel irrational guilt or shame because of this magical thinking and therefore need reassurance often that they are not at fault.
The teen years can be difficult years, even without the death of someone close. In many ways they seem like adults (they certainly think they are), however, they need the same patience, listening, acceptance, and display of love that a younger child would require. When a death does occur, the necessity of being open and honest with your teen is heightened (Dougy Center, 1999b). Remember these characteristics about teenagers when a death rocks their world: