Explaining death is not something we are prepared for, especially when we need to tell a child. Here are a few tips to help this process.
1) Provide items of play- modeling dough, crayons, action figures. A child will process the information through play. They are not being disrespectful by not looking at you nor sitting still. This is information their brain needs to define and decide where to store it, all through play.
2) Have the child describe the physical changes they have seen in the person. By listing the physical inabilities the child starts to recognize the persons decline.
3) Use direct terms. Practice saying out loud: Dying, Death, Dead. If you tell a child a dying or dead person is:
- gone to a better place they will want to join them.
- 'lost'; "we have to find them"
- 'sleeping'; a child will resist going to bed or to sleep
- taken by God; anger at God for taking the person.
4) This will be difficult for you. Children will ask direct questions and need direct clear terms. You may need additional support. There are many books or you can schedule bereavement support with a child specialized grief counselor.
5) Be prepared to repeat the information, often. The child has no prior experience to relate to. Each time you provide information a little more is added to their knowledge bank within the brain.
6) A child will increase acts of death and dying in their play. This is normal processing of a very abstract concept.
7) Look for differences in your child's behavior. Children do not have a grief vocabulary and cannot explain what they are experiencing. Sit down and play with them, listening very attentively for fears, questions and uncertainty.
8) Be prepared for the child to 're-grief' at significant social events - holidays, school activities, life changes. They will also revisit the death at developmental thresholds, reassessing what death is and how the death affects this new part of their life.
9) Support does not have to be a set timeline. Sessions can be spaced out to accommodate the child's learning of new vocabulary, skills and coping interventions. Typically it takes 2 weeks for a new behavior to be part of the child's skill set.