Give sorrow words: a guest post by Dr. Rita Bonchek on helping children understand death

December 22nd, 2012 § 6 comments

The following is a piece my mother wrote this week at my request. Dr. Rita Bonchek spent her career as a psychologist specializing in grief and loss. There is no one I know who is as insightful into the grief process as my mother. So much of the information I share here on this website was gleaned through years of listening to my mother talk about these subjects.

My mother gave me the gift of discussing difficult subjects with relative ease. I never could have known how they would come to play in my own life, most recently with the death of my mother-in-law in 2009 and my stage IV cancer diagnosis this October. She has written posts on this website about the difference between guilt and regret (here) and daughters mourning the death of their mothers (here).

We all will have experience with grief and loss. It’s a universal part of life and yet most people find themselves poorly equipped to handle the emotional and practical aspects of the death of a loved one.

After the killings in Newtown, Connecticut I asked my mom if she would be willing to write anything for me to post on my blog. I know so much has been published in the past eight days about children and their grief, but I have opted to give my readers the opportunity to read what she says. Sometimes different posts on the subject will resonate differently. I hope you will find helpful information here.

In Dr. Rita Bonchek’s words:

Helping children, especially the very young, to understand the death of a loved one is never an easy task. Not only do children’s perceptions of death include confusing images which lie between fantasy and fact (as when cartoon characters are killed and then recover instantly), but children’s vocabularies are inadequate to express their feelings and fears.

The following are suggestions to help you help your child:

1. If the death was unexpected, convey the facts in a straightforward way. Be sure to answer the who, what, why, when, and how questions. You will probably have to repeat the facts many times as your child struggles to understand what happened. If you want to check on what your child knows about the death, ask him or her to tell you what happened. Encourage your child to come to you or another designated adult when questions arise.

2. Talk about things your child has already noticed but might not understand (“You know I’ve been crying a lot. It isn’t anything you’ve done. Sometimes I think about Grandpa and I cry”).

3. Give your child permission to cry by modeling that behavior or by saying, “When I cry it makes me feel better.”

4. Use the word “died” and be sure the child understands the finality of death. One child said to his mother, “I know Daddy is dead but when is he coming home?” Children are unable to deal with euphemisms such as “eternal rest” or “We lost your uncle today.”

5. Be sure to convey the clear message that the death was not the child’s fault and there was nothing that he or she could have done. A child’s words, “I wish you would go away and never come back” or the the thought, “If I didn’t have a brother I could have all of the toys or all of Mom’s attention” do not cause a death.

6. If your child asks a question that you don’t know the answer to, say “I don’t know” or ask what the child thinks.

How a parent handles his or her own grief has a definite impact on how a child grieves. If a parent does not mention the death, avoids all discussion of the event, and/or removes pictures of the deceased, the child will easily follow these cues. You can’t protect a child from hurt or sadness by pretending nothing happened and hoping the child won’t notice. Children sense when something is wrong.

A child can also be overwhelmed by a parent’s excessive grief, which, unless it is given proper explanation, may serve as a source of insecurity or leave a child emotionally abandoned. If you cannot help your child to grieve, be sure someone is available to provide understanding, support, and information.

Parents cannot assume a child feels nothing about the death just because the “adult” forms of grieving are absent. Some children may quickly resume play activities which gives the appearance of not caring. Play may be an attempt to discharge anxiety, to distract one’s self, or to find relief from the sadness of thinking about the deceased.

Research has shown that children and adults grieve in different ways from each other. However both adults and children should abide by Shakespeare’s advice:

Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak
Whispers the o’re fraught heart and bids it break.

Unresolved grief can interfere with a person’s ability to function. Those adults and children who can work through their grief and express their emotions openly will be stronger and better able to lead full and satisfying lives.

§ 6 Responses to Give sorrow words: a guest post by Dr. Rita Bonchek on helping children understand death"

  • Pam says:

    Excellent. Thank you, Dr. Bonchek!

  • Qurban says:

    Thank you for posting this – it is very useful for a parent to have 🙂

  • Becky says:

    Love all your guest posts — thank you!

  • Through ignorance, my parents never taught me how to deal with death or grief or loss. Now I am going though it, for all of them at one time, and it is overwhelming. Although I do not blame my parents, they did the best they could, they did not do us justice by not talking about it opernly, and believe me we had plenty of grief and loss to death to deal with as younger people and into adulthood. Now I am about to embark on a journey into this grief process and I am afraid, and I am not a young person. It is very frightening, and who do I take my grief to? My family is all gone now, and I am alone. I pray for the courage necessary to undertake this journey.

  • Katie says:

    As someone who works with children, I love this post. As a teacher who recently lost a preschool student, I am grateful for a guide as I help my students grieve. I will be sharing this with the parents as well, since so many don’t know how to discuss death with such small children.

  • Alrica says:

    Lisa, I never post but I check in on your blog frequently and you are often in my thoughts. Thank you in particular for this one. My grandmother died in November and then Ct. came right on the heels of that. I thought I was doing okay with these situations until a classmate of my 8-year-old son died unexpectedly at home just before Christmas. The family has chosen not to release how he died. While this is their right, it makes it hard to explain to my children and calm their fears. Your post helped me feel like I am doing the best I can.

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