Conversations about death and dying are never easy. Add kids into the mix, and it can get a little more complicated.
Questions like "Mom, what does dying mean?" or "Dad, when am I going to die? When are you going to die?" can catch parents off guard.
Debbie Weisberg, a licensed marriage and family therapist and Clinical Coordinator of Children's Programs at Our House Grief Support Center in Los Angeles, offered some advice for parents.
How to be honest without instilling fear
Children are very, very resilient and they can handle a lot more than we think they can. So we explain death and dying in very concrete, plain, simple language. One definition that we use for very young children is we say, "Death is when a person's body stops working and they no longer can hear or feel or breathe or touch, but the part of them that you love remains in their heart forever." We also explain that when somebody dies, they no longer feel pain. And that's a very simple, direct way of explaining death and dying to children. Being honest is the most essential component. Being open and honest is what helps kids begin the path to hope and healing.
The five "goals" of mourning
The first is to help understand what death means and what happened in someone's family. The second goal is to help the child process all the feelings around death-- so that's talking about fear and sadness and confusion and guilt. The third is trying to help kids get their needs met in the absence of the person who died. The fourth is to help kids maintain the connection with that person and to hold on to the memories. The fifth goal is to teach kids coping skills-- that's how to breathe and how to talk about feelings of sadness.
How kids who are grieving can help each other
Bringing kids together to talk about their grief can be essential to the healing process. It helps them feel understood and heard and no longer isolated. They can ask advice of each other. In our support groups, there are kids who may be six months ahead of what a new griever is experiencing and it's really wonderful for them to be able to ask advice of one another. Things like "What did you do on the first anniversary? What did you do when the holidays came around? What did you do on Father's Day?" That kind of support can be really helpful.
To hear the full interview, click the blue player above.