“Why did Daddy’s uncle have to die?”

All young children have some experience with death. They may have lost a pet, seen TV coverage of a tragic accident, or overheard their parents talking about death. They may have lost a family member or heard about the death of a famous person. The circumstances vary and so do children’s reactions, ranging from curiosity about the death of a celebrity to devastation at the loss of a close relative.

Whatever the circumstances, talking to a child about death is difficult for parents, especially if they themselves are grieving. They may feel overwhelmed by their own sadness and unable to meet their child’s needs.

Even when parents aren’t mourning a personal loss, their child’s questions can make them uncomfortable: “Why did he die?” “Why couldn’t the doctor make him better?” “What happens to people after they die?” Parents have no easy answers or quick assurances. In addition, speaking about death forces them to confront their own questions and fears and reminds them of their mortality.

A child reacting to a death feels many of the emotions an adult does: loss, anger, frustration, and resentment. She may feel powerless (“Why couldn’t anyone help?”) and guilty (“I wish I’d seen her more.”). She may blame herself for a death she couldn’t have prevented (“If I’d been good all the time, he wouldn’t have died”).

If your family has experienced a loss, the most important thing you can do is talk to your child and comforts her. Find out what she thinks and, if necessary, correct her misconceptions: “I know it’s sad she was sick for so long.” “No, it wasn’t your fault Grandma died.” “Your thoughts didn’t cause the accident.” Let her share her feelings, and include her in some of your family discussions about the death. She may want to talk about her fears that you or she will die.

Some children don’t talk at all about their loss. If your child shows no sign of mourning or if she seems to be coping too well, she’s probably holding her feelings in. Talk to her about the person who died and help her express her hurt and anger so her feelings don’t become overwhelming.

If she wants to attend the funeral of someone she was close to, consider letting her go, It’s better for her to be with you there than to feel excluded or frightened at home. Explain what the funeral will be like. Let her know that people will be sad and many will cry. If she doesn’t want to attend, respect her decision. One nine-year-old told her parents, “I don’t like funerals and whenever you ask me if I want to go to one the answer is NO.”

As she struggles with her feelings, remember that mourning and the feeling of loss can last for weeks, months, even years, depending on how close she was to the person who died. Let her see that you, too, are still adjusting. With time and help from you and others, such as the children’s support groups found in religious and hospice organizations, your child will gradually come to terms with her loss. Families that share difficult times often find they are stronger and closer as a result.

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