Children experience loss too. They need open, honest and loving communication about their loved one. As humans, our instinct is to protect each other, especially children. We may try to censor our reaction to grief to protect children form the pain.
Children are keen observers and will read non-verbal communication cues (tearfulness, withdrawal, and lack of interest in everyday activities). If adults are uncomfortable talking about death and dying and consider this a taboo subject, children will sense that and be reluctant to ask questions or communicate their needs
Children need to know that it is okay to talk about the experience of loss with a trusted adult, even if you don’t have all the answers. "I’m sad"; "I’m angry" and "I don’t know" are all acceptable ways to talk to a grieving child. If you are too uncomfortable to talk to a child about death and dying, finding a trusted adult with whom the child can talk is helpful (aunt, uncle, friend, clergy, teacher, hospice worker).
A child’s concept of illness and death is different from an adult’s and varies by age. Young children view death as temporary. Children 5-9 years begin to see death as permanent, but escapable through their own efforts to be "good", use superpowers, wear a lucky shirt. This same age group may believe they did something to bring about the illness or death. Beginning in adolescence, children begin to understand that death is permanent and irreversible.
Grief is hard work and, despite our best efforts, some children will need extra assistance in dealing with the illness or death of a loved one.
Click on link below for age-specific and other information:
3-5 year olds 6-8 year olds 9-11 year olds
3-5 year olds
- Gradually but consistently explain physical changes due to cancer and treatment without being overly pessimistic or optimistic.
- Separation from the primary caregiver is a big concern at this age. The child will want to know who will take care of him/her after this parent dies.
- Have a set time that the child can ask questions and share feelings (dinnertime, bedtime, bathtime).
- Provide a consistent caregiver when the primary caregiver is unavailable (such as a grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin, friend).
- Use play and art to help illustrate what is happening in the family.
- Having a "good cry" may be more frightening for children this age.
- Anticipate child’s increased separation anxiety and need for reassurance that they will be cared for.
- Ensure planned, time-limited visits during parent’s prolonged hospitalizations. Assure child has toys, activities to do with ill parent and that parent’s condition and energy level are explained prior to visit.
6-8 year olds
- Provide timely information to children about parent’s illness; explain that parent’s absence or withdrawal is due to the illness not lack of love. Repetition is required.
- Children will likely be highly emotional.
- School performance may suffer when child is stressed. Communication with the school is important.
- If the parents cannot talk to the child without distress, enlist the help of other friends or relatives who can listen to the child’s concerns and emotions. Children feel the need to protect their parents from distress, but will need someone to talk to.
- Reassure the child that someone will continue to be their caregiver and they will not be alone, and arrange consistent substitute caregiving.
- Acknowledge the situation’s uncertainty and that this is difficult for all involved.
- Reassure children that this illness is not their fault.
- Prepare child for medical emergencies that may require parents to leave the house suddenly and unexpectedly.
- Children need permission to ask questions and express emotions they fear will upset others.
- Children will need to be able to maintain their normal activities (school, ball, dance, etc).
- Prepare children for hospital visits by explaining the condition and any medical equipment. Allow time for questions and clarification after the visit.
- Consider professional counseling if child exhibits sever anxiety, fear, school phobia, and preoccupation with self-blame or persistent depression.
9-11 year olds
- Give children fairly detailed information when parent’s diagnosis is verified: name of disease, specifics, symptoms, known causes, treatments, possible side effects.
- Assure child that illness is not their fault.
- Acknowledge that this is a stressful event for all involved, but reinforce the strength of the family unit.
- Children this age may experience anticipatory grief: feelings of sadness and loss about the possibility of the parent’s death.
- Assure that children can visit during prolonged hospitalizations.
- Help child remain involved in school and activities and maintain contact with friends.
- Support children in their interest in the parent’s care, though children should not be independently in charge of the parent’s care.
- Encourage children’s interest in reading or writing about the disease or treatment and their responses if they want to do this.
"Animal Crackers: A Tender Book about Death and Funerals and Love," Bridget Marshall, Centering Corporation, 1998.
"Badger’s Parting Gifts," Susan Varley, Mullberry, 1984.
"The Brightest Star," Kathleen Maresh Hemery, Centering Corporation, 1998.
"Dear Uncle Dave," Yuri Evelyn Norton, Shirley B Warning, 1993.
"Evertt Anderson’s Goodbye," Lucille Clifton, Henry Holt, 1983.
"Geranium Morning: A Book About Grief," E. Sandy Powell, Carolrhoda Books, 1990.
"Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children," Bryan Mellonie, Bantam, 1983.
"Someone Special Died," John Singleton Prestine, Price/Stern/Sloan, 1987.
"The Tenth Good Thing About Barney," by Judith Viorst, Atheneum, 1971.
"A Time for Remembering," Chuck Thurman, Simon and Schuster, 1989.
"Timothy Duck," Lynn Bennett Blackburn, Centering Corporation, 1987.
"Where’s Jess," Joy Johnson, Centering Corporation.
"Am I Still A Sister?," Alicia M Sims, Big A and Company, 1986.
"Finding Grandpa Everywhere," John Hodge, Centering Corporation, 1999.
"Fire In My Heart Ice In My Veins: A Journal For Teens Experiencing a Loss," Enid Samuel Traisman, Centering Corporation, 1992.
"How It Feels When a Parent Dies," Jill Drementz, 1993.
"Love, Mark" Mark T. Scrivani.
"The Mountains of Tibet," Mordicai Gerstein, Harper and Row, 1989.
"Remember the Secret," Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Celestial Arts, 1982.
"Shooting Stardust," Frrich Lewandowski, Ambassador Books, 1998.
"Isabelle’s Dream A Story and Activity Book for a Child’s Grief Journey," Betsy Bottino Arenella, Quality of Life Publishing, 2007.
"Saying Goodbye Activity Book," Jim Boulden, 1989.
"Caroline," Jane Emborsky, 1996.
"Gran Gran’s Best Trick," by Dwight Holden.
"Learning to Say Goodbye," Edna LeShan.
"When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death," Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown.
"Tim’s Dad: A Story About A Boy Whose Father Dies," by Ruth Hitchcock, Centering Corporation, 1988.
"Alex, The Life of a Child," Frank Deford, Viking, 1983.
"A Death in the Family," James Agee, Bantam, 1967.
"Matter of Time," Roni Schotter, Grosset/Dunlap, 1979.
"Part of Me Died Too: The Stories of Creative Survival Amoung Bereaved Children and Teenagers," by Virginia L. Fry, 1995.
"Thank You for Coming To Say Goodbye," Janice L. Roberts, Centering Corporation, 1994.
"When a Friend Dies: A Book for Teens About Grieving and Healing," by Marilyn E. Gootman, EdD.
"When Jean Died," Julie Dretler, Judge Baker’s Children’s Center, 1961.
For further suggested reading, see: