Can a child learn about death?

Death and irreparable loss are extreme situations that trigger intense, distressing and difficult to manage feelings, particularly for children. How to help a child experience loss and deal with the feelings associated with it?
Helping the child to cope with fear after death
Helping the child deal with fear after death
It is quite common for the child/teen’s feelings of fear and anxiety to increase after the death of someone very close and dear (just like in adults). Fear is a natural and spontaneous reaction of the body when exposed to a feeling of danger or threat.

In the face of a traumatic event such as someone’s death, it is normal for the body to be on high alert. Recognizing that fear is an absolutely natural defense reaction can help a child learn to deal with this devastating feeling.

Knowing how to help can be a challenge. Here are some strategies.

Helping the child/teenager to deal with fear after death
The questions and concerns of the child/teen are absolutely legitimate and normal: “How will we live without the person who died?”, “Who will take care of us?”, “Is anyone else going to die?”, “Where do people go when they die?”, “Am I going to die too?”.

After contact with death, some children/adolescents develop fears about certain places and circumstances that relate to that event. They may become nervous, anxious and uncomfortable when confronted with situations that relate to death such as going to a hospital, the sound of an ambulance siren, an illness or going to an appointment, for example.

Faced with these reactions, parents/caregivers should have patience and understanding, support, keep company, maintain routines, devote more time to activities together and avoid the child feeling misunderstood, isolated and abandoned.

  1. Listening and asking questions
    Do your best to listen to the child/teenager instead of thinking about what to say.

It’s natural to want to comfort the child and drive away their fears and insecurities, but it can be much more helpful for the child to begin by listening to their real concerns and feelings and only then begin to talk.

If the intention is to comfort the child, do so without promises that you cannot keep. For example, the child may be worried because you or someone close to you will also die. Instead of saying “Don’t worry my dear, I’m not going to die.” it’s more useful and realistic to say something like “I know you’re worried about other people dying too. We are all going to die. But I’m going to take very good care of myself and stay here for a long time. If anything happens to me, there will always be someone to take care of you.”

Ask the child what they can do together to help them overcome their fear.

The child/teenager often knows what they want but may feel that somehow their ideas are not valid or useful.

Create opportunities to ask, “What do you need?” and validate your suggestions. If the child panics when he or she hears the siren of an ambulance, notice this by saying, “When an ambulance passes by, you seem to get scared and cover your ears. Then ask what you can do: “When you get scared by the ambulance, what do you think could help you overcome that fear? What can I do to make you feel safe? What can you do to help you feel safe?”.

  1. Talk
    Help the child/teen to recognize and deal with their fears.

When fear appears, the child may feel overwhelmed and powerless in the face of the sensations and feelings that this emotion triggers. The adult’s natural reaction may be to try to dispel the fear in order to protect the child and prevent it from suffering.

As terrifying and paralyzing as fears may seem, it is more effective to recognize their existence than to simply ignore them or pretend they don’t matter. Although at first it may seem strange, verbalizing and talking about fears out loud is a good strategy to face and learn how to deal with fear and yearnings.

Your child may say: “I’m scared and worried because something bad might happen if I go to bed” or “Riding in a car makes me anxious because of accidents”. By encouraging your child to express his or her fears out loud, it will help him or her to recognize and face the situations that frighten him or her the most and thus prevent fear from growing every day and generating moments of growing anxiety.

Understanding and identifying the factors that generate feelings of fear, in which situations and for what reasons, allows us to define strategies that help the child to know how to deal with the situations that make him/her anxious and urge him/her to run away instead of facing his/her fears and moving on.

The later this learning is done, the harder it becomes to face the fears that arise throughout life.

  1. Communicate frankly and consistently
    Some fears and concerns are motivated by lack of information, by ignorance. To help the child/teenager manage fear and anguish, make yourself available to answer all their questions about death or the person who passed away.

Answer the questions frankly, honestly, in language adjusted to the age/maturity of the child. It also helps if you ask the child directly what he or she thinks about the matter and what the other people with whom you talked told you. Sometimes just the fact that the child understands a little better what is going on around him or her is half the way to dispel fears and insecurities.

  1. Encourage the child/teenager to investigate the origin of their fears
    Invite the child/teen to be the detective of your own fears.

If your child is afraid because he or she thinks something is hiding under the bed, grab a flashlight and peek under the bed together. Find out what the child thinks might happen if his or her fears are realized: “What really worries you if something is hidden under the bed?

It is also useful to help the child identify the situations that trigger fear and the changes that this feeling causes in his or her body: What changes in your body? (Do you feel something different in your throat, stomach, shoulders?). Where is the fear heading next? What contributes to the fear/anxiety growing and becoming stronger, more afflicting and present? What makes it fade away?

Encourage the child to speak directly to his or her own fears: “I heard that you are afraid, but I don’t want to talk to you about it today, I need to lie down. We’ll talk again tomorrow”.

Bedtime can become more complicated after death. Many children/teens find it difficult to fall asleep or wake up at night with nightmares after a negative or sad event has occurred.
Some children who are used to sleeping alone may ask to sleep in their parents’ bedroom or bed to feel safe and accompanied. Even those who do not have this kind of difficulty and can sleep in their bed may need some additional comfort such as leaving a light on or the bedroom door open, requesting the company of an adult to fall asleep or holding on to a special doll before falling asleep.

  1. Provide a structuring and safe environment
    Ensure continuity of routines and pay attention to the child.

We live in a mute of uncertainty and we are run over by change all the time. Some occur unexpectedly, completely out of our control, and without any chance to intervene to try to change the course of events. Children need a harmonious, safe and unchanging environment to feel at ease and comforted.

Establishing and implementing good routines is a way to compartmentalize and organize our day in small, predictable steps, which involve predictable tasks with clear and specific objectives and therefore help us to regain some sense of control over the events that revolve around us.

Faced with a situation as devastating as death, maintaining the day-to-day routine can help us face loss and pain with the notion of some “control”. Keeping the routines and small daily tasks ensures the maintenance of a link between the important activities of everyday life, transmitting security, control and continuity. Knowing that after bedtime comes waking up, breakfast, going to school, meeting friends and all the other activities helps to serenade and stabilize the new reality experienced by the child.

Despite the advantages of routines, it is desirable to maintain some flexibility to introduce small adjustments whenever necessary and let some events and adaptations flow at your own pace.

  1. Offer choices and restore the feeling of control
    In the face of someone’s death, the child/teenager, like the adult, feels powerless and without any control over events.

Giving choice and inviting to participate in decisions helps the child rebuild the notion of control and reduce the feeling that the world is unsafe and unstable. These choices can be as linear as: “What cereal do you want to buy for breakfast?” or as significant as: “Would you like to attend the funeral service?

  1. Helping the child feel safe by visualizing a peacemaker scenario or thought
    In the face of a negative or sad event, it is normal to be afraid and think that other bad things can happen.

Sometimes fears arise through images or thoughts that insist on remaining in our mind. Trying to simply drive them away is not usually very effective and can even have the opposite effect, increasing the intensity of what we fear.

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