Coping with cancer: Death of a loved one

There is nothing harder than helping your child understand and deal with the death of someone they love!  It literally makes your heart ache to see your child struggle with such confusing and painful challenges, at a time when life should be full of joy and learning and growth.  You would never have planned to expose your child to the concept of death at an early age, but here it is.  You cannot protect your child from this experience, and it is important to remember that what you do now lays the groundwork for your child to be able to cope with loss throughout his or her life.

This topic is so significant and universal that whenever possible, parents would be well served to address issues of death prior to any major loss a child might experience.  The death of a pet or another animal often offer the first opportunity to help children understand the basics of life and death.

Fortunately, there are many resources available to you.  Good children’s books have been written representing all types of childhood loss.  Many websites will provide you with an abundance of suggestions, checklists, and pamphlets.  Some of the best are:

Since there are so many good resources available to you, I won’t try to duplicate all the information that is out there in books and on the internet.  However, if you need more information right now, and don’t have immediate access to other sources, I have included a brief, bulleted overview of the way preschoolers understand death, and what you might do to help them cope.

 

DEVELOPMENTAL UNDERSTANDING OF THE CONCEPT OF DEATH

  •  Birth – 2: Beginning awareness of separation
  • 2 – 4: Beginning cognitive understanding, may have no emotional response, or may just mirror the emotions of adults
  • 4 – 6: Increasing cognitive understanding, beginning emotions, including denial, empathy
  • 6 – 9: Understands fully, and is fascinated; strong emotional reactions, worries and wants to avoid
  • 9 – 12: Acceptance, working on spiritual meanings
  • 12 and up: Personal responses developing, may reject family religion

 

SUB-CONCEPTS OF DEATH COMPREHENSION IN YOUNG CHILDREN

These concepts are learned by preschool children over time, and are learned in order.  For example, a young child cannot understand about cause of death until he or she learns that death is irreversible.

These are the four steps in moving toward a mature understand of the concept of death.  Do not be surprised if your preschool child struggles with any of the concepts.  Many preschool children expect that a person who dies will be able to return, or that the person will hurt or be hungry in a coffin, or that someone is to blame for the death.  Just continue correcting these misconceptions.

  • Inevitability – Every living thing will die
  • Irreversibility – Once someone dies, they cannot come back to life
  • Cessation – When someone dies, all living functions stop, like breathing, eating, moving
  • Causality – There is always a cause to a death, whether illness or injury, that causes the body to stop working

THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT GRIEF INTERVENTION FOR CHILDREN!

The consistent, loving presence of someone the child can depend

on over time

 

 

FOUR TASKS OF A GRIEVING CHILD (Sandra Fox):

  • To understand and begin to make sense of what has happened
  • To express in constructive ways reactions to the loss
  • To learn to go on with living and loving
  • To commemorate the life that was lived

 

KEY PRINCIPLES THAT PROMOTE COPING IN PRESCHOOLERS

  • Be as honest as possible, but keep it simple
  • Use simple words, like die and death, not euphemisms
  • Know that you will have to tell the story over and over again, and that your child will tell everybody what has happened in his life
  • Minimize change and disruption
  • Provide opportunities for play
  • Expect play about death, and about separation
  • Expect a variety of emotions to come out in play, including sadness and anger

“Mistakes made with love are easily fixed”

Don’t worry if, in moments of your own grief, you say or do something that isn’t recommended in all the readings.  You haven’t damaged your child, and it is always possible to sit down with a preschooler and explain an adjusted way of looking at some issue.