How to Help a Child Deal with Tragedy (death in the family, etc.)

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Every day some adult is faced with the unavoidable painful task of being the first one to tell a child about a tragedy that will affect his

life. A parent dies, a parent loses his job, or there is divorce or infidelity or desertion. They are all realities which may need coping with, and if not dealt with properly can cause unnecessary trauma. Here are some specific ways of breaking bad news to children, ways that can be helpful and strengthening to both the teller and the vulnerable child:

A child’s understanding of death changes as he grows from three to 10. At three to five years, death is not something final but more like sleep or a journey. So while toddlers react with sorrow at first, the family may think they’ve forgotten very quickly. Children between five and nine do see death as final, but not something which happens to everyone – certainly not to themselves.

At nine or 10, they begin to know it is inevitable. To break the news of a parental death to a very young child, a good opening sentence is “I’m going to tell you a story, and it’s not a happy one.” Without elaboration, continue your own version of “There was something wrong with Mommy we didn’t know about, and she died.” Make certain facts very clear:

1. That death means never returning. Comparing death with sleep or a journey, or even saying “Angels took her to heaven” spells confusion. The child may feel hurt at not being kissed good-bye, or anger at heaven for taking Mommy away.

2. The child must know that he himself was in no way responsible by being naughty or even by having shrieked, “I wish you were dead.”

3. That everyone who is sick does not necessarily die.

4. That the death of one parent does not mean the death of the other – or of the child himself.

5. That the dead will be buried in a specific place. Otherwise, the child may fantasize (worry that the body is hiding in the house, for instance).

6. That the child is loved dearly and that there will always be a grownup to take care of him.

7. That you, the teller, also mourn the dead, as he does. The bereaved adult who tries to “shield” the child by hiding his own grief only causes bewilderment; the child wonders why no one else seems to feel sorrow.

Remember: the “right words” are less important than the sharing of emotions, reassurances and the cuddling of strong, loving arms.

For more information see the Parenthood section of Howify.

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