Parents instinctively try to protect their children from pain, so it is particularly difficult to know how to help children when someone in the family is dying.
Since death is a part of life, it is important to guide children and to teach them how to handle grief. Children are often more aware of what is going on around them than adults admit. When they are not given the opportunity to share their feelings or questions, they can feel frightened and confused.
What children will understand and how they react will depend upon their experiences, personalities and stages of development. A child can detect changes in the routine or tensions in the family through voices and touch. Even an infant can feel the changes going on at a difficult time like this.
IMAGINATION AND REALITY
Preschool children are very curious about the world and may have questions that seem strange to us. They generally do not understand that death is final. They may imagine the person physically living on in some other place – like underground or in heaven – or they expect them to return. It's important to ask their opinions and to help them understand what is happening.
Children of early school age (six to nine) may see death as a frightening person or monster. Others can be very realistic. By nine years old, children can see death as an actual fact for all living things, including themselves. Whether children talk about it or not, they know something is happening, and they have their own ideas to explain it, which may be more frightening than the truth.
For these reasons, it is important to talk as openly as you can with children. Children need to know in clear and simple terms what is happening. It is just as important to listen to their thoughts and reactions as it is to give them explanations.
HONESTY AND INCLUSION
As the patient's illness progresses, there may be changes in the patient's behavior that may worry children. If Grandpa is sleeping all the time, is shouting or is very thin, children will notice. A simple explanation tells the child it's okay to talk about the things that are happening.
The family is the most important part of younger children's lives. Children need to feel included, even at a sad time. It can help the children to participate in caring for the patient. Bringing a drink, singing a song, playing in the same room as the patient or drawing a special picture can help your child feel as though he or she has a part in what is happening.