Dr. Dana Johnson: Talking to Children About Death

Originally published on October 23, 2013 in the Wisconsin State Journal. Dr. Johnson is a pediatrician practicing at the Meriter McKee clinic.

Dear Dr. Johnson: My 6-year-old son’s grandmother has a terminal illness. How do we explain this to him and help him when she does die?

Dear Reader: I am sorry for the sadness your family is suffering. Just as all adults cope with grief differently, each child can react differently in these situations.

As parents, we often want to protect our children from anything that could be upsetting or painful. In this situation, however, it is best to be open and honest with your child.

I would strongly encourage you not to hide or sugarcoat the fact that his grandmother is very ill. Children can be very observant and know something is wrong by how parents and other adults are acting. Communicating with him in an honest and direct way often is best.

Of course, keep the information you share at a level he can understand. Allow him to ask any questions and answer them to the best of your ability. If heaven or other afterlife is a part of your beliefs, you can discuss this further with him.

It may be beneficial for your son to visit with his grandmother if this is possible. If she looks different or if there will be medical devices in the room, it is best to prepare your child for this. Explain what might be different. Explain medical devices on a level he can understand. For example, I often explain IVs to children as special straws that put medicine into the veins.

By school age, most children understand that death is permanent. How close your child is to his grandmother and how much she was a part of his everyday life likely will impact the extent of the loss he feels when she does pass.

Again, don’t shelter him from the fact that she has died, but take time to answer his questions as honestly as you can. Provide reassurance that you are there to support him and talk whenever he wants. It may also be helpful to reassure him that you are healthy and probably will live for a long time.

As I stated earlier, each child will react differently to their grief. Some will become quiet or cry, while others may have more behavior outbursts.

Don’t hide your own grief from your child. If your child sees you expressing your grief through crying or talking about your sadness, it shows him that it is OK to share these feelings. If they feel that talking about death is taboo, they will be less likely to share their feelings and may have more difficulty processing them.

Remember that grief doesn’t resolve quickly for you or your child. Continue to keep the conversation open.

If your grief or your child’s grief is affecting your ability to participate in other aspects of your life, it may be helpful to talk with a physician or counselor.

This column provides general health information and is not specific advice intended for any particular individual(s). It is not a professional medical opinion or a diagnosis. Always consult your personal health care provider about your concerns. No ongoing relationship of any sort (including but not limited to any form of professional relationship) is implied or offered by Dr. Johnson to people submitting questions.

Read more: http://host.madison.com/news/local/ask/dr-johnson/dr-dana-johnson-talking-to-children-about-death/article_b5d1215d-8de9-5b3c-9771-f57ed5522fdc.html#ixzz2iYP3rp29

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