“How do we tell the kids?”
Finding the best way to tell children is typically a serious concern when someone dies. We may feel unsure about the best way to explain the death to the child(ren), how much to tell them about the manner of death, and whether they should attend the funeral. Depending on their age, children understand death differently, so the way we present the death to them should mirror what they are capable of understanding about loss and separation.
Children in this age group do not have an understanding of death. The childhood game "peek-a-boo"(derived from old English ‘alive or dead’) is both tantalizing and frightening for children as they begin to form a sense of what is permanent and what is temporary. A child this young cannot process the permanence of death; however, they are exquisitely sensitive to their caregivers’ experiences. The best way to help a small child of this age is to make sure you have enough support for yourself to grieve in a healthy way.
“Death” is now part of the child’s emotional language, but it is not generally seen as permanent; instead, a representation of separation. A child at this age may continuously ask when a dead person will return or, if viewing a dead body or pet, ask when the person/pet will wake up. Using euphemisms is not helpful for this child, especially saying things like “Buddy went to the farm” when a favorite dog dies. Pet loss is typically a child's first experience with death, and explaining to the child, "Buddy is dead and we will not see him again," is a gentle way to introduce death permanence. You can also begin to offer ways for the child to memorialize the dead pet by placing a flower on the pet's grave, writing a goodbye card, etc. With modifications, these memorializing interventions can be used for human death too.
Children at this age are beginning to understand that death is permanent and that the person/pet will not return. However, they still do not fully understand that death is inevitable and will happen to everyone. They may hold a fantasy that death can be outwitted if they are clever or good enough. This belief that they can outrun or outsmart death is a protective measure; however, they may also worry that others in their lives will be unable to protect themselves from death. If a death is experienced, it is crucial to explain to the child that the child is not responsible for the other person's death, as the child may fantasize that they could have prevented the death somehow or that their behavior was in some way responsible for the death.
Ten Years and Beyond
Children, pre-teens, and teenagers now understand that death is permanent and inevitable and will happen to them. However, sometimes, the feeling of a lack of control over death may lead to risky behavior – an unconscious drive to try to assert control over death, even if it results in death itself – especially in teenagers. With kids of this age, honest conversations, frequent check-ins, and modeling healthy coping strategies, especially reaching out for help yourself, is the best way to help them through coming to terms with the death.
Some young children may fixate on a minute detail surrounding the loss, such as the shiny handle on a coffin at a funeral or a specific type of flower in a memorial arrangement. They may carry this representation unconsciously throughout their lives as a symbol of separation and death. For example, Charles Foster Kane's "Rosebud" sleigh in Citizen Kane loosely represents how a child attaches loss to a specific item. Drawing out a child’s obsession with such objects without judging or shaming them can help them to let go of this connection.
Should they attend the funeral?
It is generally accepted now that children of any age can attend funerals; many adults bear resentment for not being allowed to participate in the funerals of loved ones as a child. The choice about whether to attend or stay at the funeral should be the child's if the child is old enough to make the choice. Younger children may also participate in funerals, but adults surrounding them should remain aware of signs of distress. Additionally, if the parents are extremely distraught, it is advisable to have a loved, trusted adult such as an aunt, best friend, or godparent in charge of the child in case the child wishes to leave. Children may read or play quietly during a funeral; this does not mean the child is not absorbing what is going on, just that children frequently use play to process new experiences and emotions. Later, the child may 'act out' the funeral or death during play. This is entirely normal developmentally and should be no cause for concern.
Explaining to the child the funeral's purpose and what to expect may help the child feel more at ease. Letting them know they can leave at any time to step outside or go to the bathroom and how to find someone who will take them will also go a long way to relieving any anxiety.
What about an open casket?
Some children may be able to view an open casket, but for others, viewing an open casket can be frightening and disturbing. In this situation it is entirely dependent on the child; what is most important is that the child should never be forced or coerced into viewing. As with attending the funeral, it should be the child's choice. A parent should view first to ensure viewing will not scare their child.
In short, it is both appropriate and advisable to discuss death with your child in an age-sensitive way. Children are frequently aware when things are being kept from them, and this can actually be more frightening for a child than being told the truth. It is always important to be aware of how the child may be processing their feelings about the death, whether through play or behavior. It is also vital to advise those who surround the child – teachers, friend's parents, etc.- of the death, so they can also support the child through the experience. As always, taking care of yourself and your grief is one of the best ways to help your child through the death of a loved one.