Preparing children and teenagers for the death of a parent
Ilana Kilian, a social worker, explains that preparing children and teenagers for a death of a parent is a process of honesty where everyone is actively involved.
Though we know it’s an inevitable part of life, talking about death is something most of us aren’t really good at because the subject is so painful. It’s even harder for us to discuss and deal with this topic when there are children or teenagers involved.
Part of the journey is finding ways to express what’s happening to make sense of what’s happened, and finally, to accept what has happened. Children and teenagers need to be fully part of this journey.
Importance of communication
The one element included in most research is the importance of communication. Get an idea what your child thinks is happening and what changes they might have noticed.
This is usually a good introduction to further conversations. When you discuss how they perceive the situation, it’s important to raise the death/dying topic.
Useful tips to keep in mind
Always remember that we can’t shield children from grief and dying. There is no way to hide the dying process, the person will be gone and they need to be informed about this.
Don’t wait for the “right time” to discuss death with children. Communicate openly and honestly.
Be the first to give children and teenagers the news. They shouldn’t overhear this from someone else.
Actively listen to questions and concerns that indicate a child’s level of understanding. Be attentive to their reactions and questions and respond accordingly.
Avoid using euphemisms, such as not getting better or passing on. It’s important to be clear and direct from day one. Otherwise, you tend to give hope that can be shattered.
Provide emotional support. This is difficult because you also are in need of support. Be wise to ask for help if you find it difficult to deal with death and the days to follow.
Involve the child in age-appropriate caregiving responsibilities. You’re still the parent and if you’re single or alone, get help in. They should still be the child in the house and continue in this role.
When information has been given and the process started of dealing with death on the doorstep, we can help children cope with this and also equip them with preparing for the period when their parent is no longer there. Nothing will ever replace the parent, but we can help children create spaces to keep the memory and the parent present in a good way.
Children and teenagers spend a lifetime revisiting the loss of their parent and as they pass through their life stages, they identify in some ways with the parent.
A good way to keep the parent ‘active’ and ‘involved’ is to write letters that the child or teen can open at certain crucial stages in their life. Or just to communicate what a parent felt and questions that needs answering.
Another useful tool is to create a memory box. This can be simple things like a scarf, sentiments from their youth or a watch. They can always link this to the memory of their parent.
Allow your child to participate in rituals. Let children pick clothing for your loved one, photos for the memorial, a song or spiritual reading. This will help them gain a sense of control of the traumatic loss.
Encourage your child to keep a journal. This will give them an opportunity to splash all their emotions without feeling vulnerable and embarrassed. This is for their eyes only, and they learn to explore feelings, have emotions and you might even be surprised at how this method will eventually encourage them to also talk about their feelings and emotions.
The death of any loved parent is an incalculable blow. Because no one ever loves you again like that.”
Preparing for death, death itself and life after death is difficult for adults, let alone children and teenagers. But it’s the same loss, we all lose the same person, no matter who we are.
Loss in a family is like disability, your family becomes disabled for life. You now have to find ways of coping with this disability within your family system. This should be a process where everyone is honest and actively involved, at all given times, in this inevitable process.
MEET THE EXPERT – Ilana Kilian
Ilana Kilian is a social worker in private practice in Stellenbosch, Western Cape. She works closely with Dr Margie Venter, Palliative Care Oncologist and The Stellenbosch Hospice in a team approach to care. She has a passion for older people as well as supporting families on a journey where they find meaning and coping with unexpected illness.
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