Before the 20th Century children often experienced life and death in the same household. They lived under the same roof with a number of generations. They learnt first-hand about illness and ageing as well as birth, babies and growing up. Kids saw people get older and were involved looking after their grandparents or some other elderly family member. And they often witnessed death. The cycle of life and death was a reality to them.
In the 21st century we tend to live in a grief-avoiding culture. Kids today need to know that death is part of life, death is the natural end of life. They need to be told the truth even if the person who’s died was young. Sadly they’re often lied to about the actual state of health of a loved one. What are we trying to protect kids from?
Protecting kids from the reality of death is harmful. It will come back to bite them at some point in their lives. Unresolved grief accumulates. Here’s what can happen.
- They have unresolved feelings of abandonment, an emptiness, not understanding why.
- They may compartmentalise life before and after the death of a loved one.
- They bury their feelings, bury the reality and live in a pretence that everything’s okay.
- They may fantasise and believe their imaginings to be true.
- They may show behavioural issues, self-harm, make poor decisions..
- They may become bullies and victims.
- They may develop mental issues and anxieties that fester untreated.
- Their emotional development will be impaired.
- They may have poor relationships.
What can we do as adults?
Keep death simple. Share information in simple, clear ways at a level they understand. And share in a timely manner.
Be honest. Let them ask questions and answer them honestly even if you don’t know the answer.
Never lie. If we’re not honest, kids will make stuff up to try and make sense of it. They may blame themselves, develop guilt. Talk in realities. Avoid using roundabout ways to talk about death.
Protect kids from any public curiosity, particularly if the deceased was well-known or died in difficult circumstances.
Avoid giving confusing and contradictory messages. Tell the truth, simply.
Reassure kids. Try and live as normally as possible, not in hushed tones. Routine is everything.
Kids talk in their own time – we need to have our antennae tuned so we can respond immediately.
Let kids see your grief too, let them share it. Grief is normal. It’s our human response to loss. If you're struggling to cope with your own grief, ask someone close to you, the family, to help support your child or children in their grieving.
In the Western world today we live a grief avoiding culture – sanitise death, deal with it quickly as if it were highly contagious – out of sight out of mind. We could learn a thing or two from Maori, the Aborigine, North American First Peoples and Pacific islanders about life and death.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are many grief counsellors in NZ. Most funeral directors have a counselling service or can assist with finding them in your location.