Q. My father is in hospice care and isn’t expected to live much longer. It’s been emotionally hard on me, but I also have two children, ages 5 and 8. What suggestions do you have for helping them get through this loss?
A. You’re going through a difficult time. You’re dealing with your father’s illness and inevitable death. You want and need to help your children deal with their grandfather’s death in a healthy way. You may be helping your mother. And your husband wants attention, too.
Before giving suggestions about the children, I’ll remind you to take care of yourself. Whatever energizes you—a warm shower or bath, a cup of tea, a nap, exercise or alone time with your husband—gives you strength to get through this time. Write a daily schedule so you can prioritize tasks and include some “me” time.
Now, about the children: keep in mind that each child is affected by death depending on his or her developmental age, personality, sense of security and many other factors. Some kids will withdraw and get quiet, while others become irritable or hyperactive.
Find out what’s going on inside. Encourage your children to talk about their thoughts and share their feelings and questions. Listen rather than tell. Answer questions honestly but simply, so your kids don’t feel confused or overwhelmed. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”
If you need to think about your answer or find yourself too emotional, you can say what my elderly aunt says: “I think better when I have ice cream. Let’s get some.” Or simply say: “Let me think about that and answer later.” Be sure to find that time later.
Some young children have what is called “magical thinking,” as if they somehow caused the death. For example, if they had been good, the person wouldn’t have died. Reassure the child that we can’t cause others to die by what we say or think.
What you say about life after death will depend on your own beliefs and culture. Some cultures believe in reincarnation, which can be comforting in that the person will return in another form. Some cultures believe in a God who will welcome the person into Heaven, which can also be comforting.
The discomforting question is often, “How could God allow this person to die?” Conveying that death is part of the cycle of life is a challenge, as the questions that arise then include: “Will I die, or will mommy or daddy die?” Reassuring answers usually focus on the idea that you don’t expect to die for a long time.
Use the word “death.” Most mental health professionals discourage saying the person is asleep and won’t wake up. Using the word “death” presents reality and avoids the risk of a child developing a fear of sleep.
Explain what ceremonies and gatherings will occur. Invite attendance, but don’t force it. Being part of the activities and surrounded by people who love them is helpful. Have a plan to take the children outside, to another room or home if ceremonies run long.
I applaud you for recognizing that losses affect children. One of the most important things you can do is to be emotionally and physically available to help them through this experience.
Do avoid getting so lost in tasks or your own grief that your children feel abandoned. Feeling abandoned and lost as a child can follow a person into adulthood and is one of the issues that adults frequently deal with in therapy. Helping your children deal with death is important work.
Betty Richardson, Ph.D., R.N.C., L.P.C., L.M.F.T., is an Austin-based psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with the problems of children, adolescents and parents.
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