Supporting Children when a Parent Dies

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Supporting Children when a Parent Dies

What do we tell children when a parent dies?

When we’re older, we have a different understanding of death then we have when we are children. Children are extremely vulnerable because they depend on their parents for their survival need. So, what do you tell them when a parent dies? Some believe that if you don’t tell children the truth you protect them from the harsh reality and many adults feel very uncomfortable talking about death. And yet, death is a fact of life and children, young or that bit older, need honesty. In a very informative book about loss and death, the Irish author Christy Kenneally tells us that children are the best grievers in the world unless adults get in the way. He relates his own story of what happened when his mother died when he was only 5 years old. As his mother’s illness progressed, he and his siblings were sheltered from the reality and when she died, a protective wall of love was built around them.  They were sent away to various caring cousins while their father buried his 30 years old wife.  They returned home to a sombre street where neighbors dabbed their eyes and other family members were dressed in black and haggard looking. Kenneally said they kept quiet and whispered about Mammy amongst themselves until they were teenagers, so as to protect the adults who got upset every time the children introduced the subject. In this case, roles were reversed and the children became the minders. Children learn from what they see and if they witness adults who grieve well they have a chance of doing the same. There is no evidence to say that talking about death with children causes distress. On the contrary, it seems that the opposite is true. Death is, for some children a personal experience. Children are curious and interested in talking about death and dying. The following event will stay with me forever: a couple of years ago, a few days after my grandmother’s funeral, I was crying when my 7 years old daughter asked me what’s wrong. When I told her that my grandmother died and I’m very sad because I will never see or talk to her again, with a smile on her little face, very naturally, she just said to me that I’m wrong and of course I will meet her again when I will die, because everybody dies, first grandparents, then parents and then children when they become old. To her it was a fact of life. If we could only have the ability and the strength to learn from our children!!

Children need honest, reliable and factual information that will enable them to understand and make sense of the death. When they are very young they need to know that the parent who died cannot walk, hear, eat or feel pain any more. Children take things quite literally and may think that they could go and visit their dead mother if they are told that she moved to heaven or they might attempt to wake up their dead father if they are being told that he is resting in peace. Children also use repetition and like to hear the same things over and over again, so it may be a good idea to give them the same answer to the questions about death.

With reference to Irish society, there is support for bereaved children in programs like Rainbows that was founded in Chicago, USA, in 1983 and implemented in Ireland in 1988. Rainbows is a peer-support program to assist children who are grieving a death, separation or other painful transition in their family and is currently operating in all 32 counties in Ireland. Your local school can give you information about the program.


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