When a beloved friend or family member is battling a terminal illness, sometimes the littlest ones can get lost in the shuffle. Yet, even 3-year-olds can experience fear and confusion when it comes to prolonged sickness and death.
That’s why today I want to share with you four points from Focus on the Family counselors to help parents navigate issues associated with the illness and death of a loved one with their preschoolers and children in early elementary school.
1. Prepare the child for what’s coming.
You might want to consider introducing the concept of death to young children before a loved one dies so they can start to process and understand what’s happening. You don’t even have to connect the lesson to the loved one yet, but rather use these talks to explain in death in an age-appropriate way.
Examples from nature will likely resonate with young children. For example, perhaps the child has seen an animal or pet die. That will help them understand that every living thing has a lifetime, a beginning and an end.
One way to explain the life cycle and death can be through flowers. Buy and care for cut flowers with your child. As you place them in water, you can talk about how bright and beautiful and vibrant they are. After a few days of caring for them, however, you can observe with your child how the flowers are beginning to wilt and weaken. One day, the flowers will die and they won’t be with us any longer.
2. Tell children the truth about dying.
Some parents tell their child that “Grandma went on vacation” or “Uncle Eddie became an angel.” In the long term, that approach doesn’t help a child properly understand death or our Christian faith, so it’s best to tell your child the truth in simple terms.
You might want to talk about death as it relates to a friend or family member once things become more certain or imminent. It’s important to remember that many preschoolers and early elementary school-aged children will think death is temporary. They might have watched a cartoon or played a video game where a character dies and then comes back, so you will have to explain that physical earthly death is permanent.
They might struggle to understand what causes death, too. Explain to the child that our physical bodies can die due to old age, accident or disease. Many children will hear things like, “Grandpa is sick and dying” and become scared that the cold they just caught means they’re dying, too. For this reason, it’s important to explain the difference between a common illness and a terminal one. Consider explanations like: “Grandma has a unique, different illness that’s very serious called cancer. You can’t catch cancer like you can catch a cold.”
It’s very likely kids this age will also bring up the subject again and again as they process and think about it. Be prepared for an ongoing conversation with your son or daughter.
3. Prepare the child for the grieving process.
When a loved one dies, the child may experience grieving or be surrounded by grief-stricken adults. You can help him or her understand what’s to come by explaining how death may impact the friends and family left behind.
For example, you might want to explain that when a loved one dies, those who are left behind might feel a lot of emotions, like sadness, anger, and confusion. You can say things like, “God is getting Grandma ready to be with Him. And while Grandma gets to go be with Jesus, I’m going to miss her. I’ll get to see Grandma again, but in the meanwhile I’ll miss her and that makes me sad. So you might see Daddy cry, and that’s normal.”
Children might also feel confusion or guilt about death (“Did I cause Mommy’s death?”) or fear (“If Grandpa died, who will pick me up from school?”). You can help your child through these emotions by being open to their questions and by talking about what they’re feeling.
4. Use the opportunity to talk to your child about the Christian faith.
Teaching children about death gives us a chance to tell them about Jesus Christ’s gift of eternal life and the hope of heaven. Ahead of time, prepare to answer questions common to this age group: “What does heaven look like?”, “Who’s in heaven?” and “What if I’m mean to someone, can I still go to heaven?”
You might also have to help your child understand why God didn’t answer his or her prayers for the loved one to get better. Here’s one way to address this question:
“God loves us and He always hears our prayers. But sometimes, when we ask Him for something, He says no. It’s like when you ask if you can go outside to play or watch TV and sometimes Mommy and Daddy say ‘No, you can’t’ or ‘No, not now.’ In this case, we prayed Grandma would get better and not be sick here on earth. Well, God heard our prayers, and He answered no.
“But in another way, He did heal her. Because now she’s in heaven. And while her body is not working any longer, her spirit is in heaven with Jesus. She’s not sick, and she’s not in pain. And we’ll see her again. But that won’t be for a long time and we’ll miss her so we’re sad about that. But we have the hope we’ll see her again, and that makes us glad, even while we’re sad.”
If you want to learn more about talking to your child about grief and loss, our Focus on the Family online bookstore has good resources. Parents might want to read books like It’s Okay to Cry: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Children Through the Losses of Life (this title also has a workbook); Children and Grief: Helping Your Child Understand Death or When Your Family’s Lost a Loved One: Finding Hope Together.
Our bookstore also has books on death for children, like Someone I Love Died; Sad Isn’t Bad: A Good-grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing with Loss and Lifetimes.
One last note: If you believe your preschooler or young school age child is experiencing more grief than typical – things like isolation, irritability, changes in appetite, outbursts, physical complaints, or trouble concentrating – you can speak with one of our licensed professional counselors at no cost by calling 1-855-771-HELP (4357) Monday through Friday between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. MT.
You can also find a local counselor via our Christian Counselor Network. Counselors with the letters RPT or RPT-S behind their name are play therapists who specialize with younger children. They are trained to communicate through play to help your child express what is troubling them, when they do not have the verbal language to express their thoughts and feelings.