Helping children cope with grief
It’s a common misconception that children are too young to understand death and so they aren’t included in the grieving process. Unfortunately, in doing so, children aren’t given the opportunity to work through their own grief.
How to help children
Children will need to be given information that is appropriate for their age and emotional development. When a family member or person important to the child has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, explain to them, what is happening. For example, “You know that Mom has been going to the doctor a lot lately and that all the adults have been talking in hushed voices most of the time. Would you like me to tell you what has been going on?”
Give the child time to ask questions and answer honestly. If they ask, “Does this mean Mom might die?” You need to be honest and say, “We hope that the medication that the doctors are giving her is going to help her but yes, there is a chance that the cancer might kill her.” Children will process this information in their own way. Don’t tell them to stop asking questions, they might have a lot.
Don’t use euphemisms, such as, she will go to sleep and not wake up, as this can be scary for a child who begins to associate sleep with death. Some children may take an interest in death and it may be an opportunity to discuss what you believe happens after death. Don’t worry if the child becomes preoccupied with death and dying, this is normal.
When it comes closer to the death of a loved one
Don’t exclude children from what is happening. You don’t need to explain all the details to them but be honest. For example, “Gran is going to die soon.” Ask if the child would like to do anything special for their loved one to say goodbye. This might be being allowed to visit them if they are in hospital or hospice. Prepare the child for what they are going to see, such as, “Gran has lost a lot of weight since you last saw her and she may not look like herself. She is tired and probably won’t be able to speak to you, but she can hear you. Gran has a mask over her face which gives her oxygen to make her more comfortable when she breathes. She has plastic pipes in her arm which give her medicine and water because she can’t swallow.” Knowing what to expect will help ease the uncertainty of what to expect. Don’t force your child if he/she doesn’t want to go, they might want to write a letter or draw a picture for them instead.
Let them be involved in the funeral. They can draw a picture that they want buried or cremated with their loved one. They can say a poem or read a letter that they have written. They will let you know what they feel comfortable doing.
It’s important to let your child say goodbye as it helps them get closure too. It can be helpful to have a friend help you on the day of the funeral, especially if you need help keeping the young children occupied during the ceremony.
After the funeral
Let your child speak about their loved one and share your memories with each other. Don’t try and be strong for your child and hide away your emotions. This may teach them to bottle up their emotions. Listen with an open heart.
If you need help in breaking bad news to a child or help with the grief process, you can contact a palliative care provider to assist you. Visit palprac.org to find a provider in your area.
MEET THE EXPERT – Dr Michelle King
Dr Michelle King has completed a post graduate diploma in chronic pain management and is currently completing her post graduate diploma in palliative medicine through UCT. She is part of an interdisciplinary pain clinic and palliative care team. Dr King believes in empowering people so that they can take charge of their physical and mental health, and as a result, live their lives to the fullest.