Taking the correct approach in explaining death to children can prevent trauma
CAIRO: “Where did Daddy go? When is he coming back? These simple questions are often met with a confused look as a bereaved mother tries to search for a quick answer that explains to her five-year-old the death of his father.
The easiest answer for such questions would come in the form of a minute of silence followed by the cliché, “Daddy went to God, an equivalent of “Daddy went to heaven. But most children will find this type of answer lacking. Even if it is given as gently and painlessly as possible, it doesn t provide a satisfying answer to a child who misses his parent.
With sad news of a death engulfing the family, few give enough consideration to how to explain a family death to children. Whether the deceased was a parent or a distant relative, a child’s first encounter with the concept of death affects them for life.
Amr El-Sharawy, father of a nine-year-old, says his son Seif was only five when his mother died in an accident. At such an age, children ask a lot of questions that are usually unanswered or, at best, partially answered by parents.
“The reaction of the boy was very strange, said El-Sharawy. He was totally cold and was very curious to know why she had died and what it meant for a person to die. I did not know what to tell him, especially since I was very disturbed psychologically at the time, El-Sharawy says.
Psychiatrist Dr. Aly Mokhtar explains, “Reactions of children can start from being absolutely cold to extremely nervous and angry. It depends on how the family explains the situation to them.
Some children display their emotions immediately in the form of crying and other emotional outbursts, whereas others bottle it up inside and display their emotions later.
Living through or witnessing the heated emotional scenes that usually mark the mourning of a family member can lead a child to express his feelings through extreme reactions such as screaming, crying and eventually depression.
Leena El-Sherif, a widow and mother of an 8-year-old girl, said when her husband died two years ago she faced great difficulty in informing her daughter Farah about his death.
“The girl noticed that I was wearing black all the time because her father died, recalled El-Sherif. “She started crying heavily and refused to eat for nearly three days. I had to call a psychiatrist to come and assess to what extent her father’s death had affected her. I felt that the girl needed counseling, as she couldn’t bear the loss of her dad.
Children are aware of death, stresses Mokhtar. They see death in everyday life in a dead cat or a dead insect, he continued, but they never link the concept to the loss of someone close.
Dr. Heba Kotb, assistant professor of psychology at the American University in Cairo, said children should be dealt with as sensitively as possible. Death should be explained to them in a simple and honest way but parents should be careful to provide them with explanations whenever possible and to be ready to support them psychologically.
Marwa Sameh, the mother of six-year-old Zeyad, said her son was greatly affected when his grandmother died when he was three. His young age was an obstacle to finding a suitable explanation, since explanations of death should be geared to the child s level of understanding.
“Always make sure you are telling the truth but you may not need to give all the details, advises Kotb. “For a three-year-old it would be best to answer questions but not volunteer information.
“Sometimes we assume that children will want to ask about something and we start by answering before they ask. It could be that the child is not thinking yet about what [we] think they are thinking about.
In general, any mishandling of the situation means that the child may suffer from long-term trauma, she continued. It can lead to depression, anxiety, behavior problems and feelings of insecurity.
Mokhtar suggests that parents talk with their children about death even without a death in the family. Children have to be told about death; background knowledge can make it much easier for them to deal with death when they have to.
But in cases of death in the family, emotional and psychological preparation of the child should precede a proper explanation.
“One should never come to the child with bad news out of the blue. Start by sitting with him or her in a quiet place and talk smoothly about what has happened, explains Mokhtar.
Help them apprehend it and shield them from any misconceptions that might lead to negative consequences, he added.
Children sometimes need extra support, he noted. Sometimes the ideal person to provide this support might be an older brother or sister or a same-aged friend.
Siblings can offer their support by sleeping in the same bedroom with a younger child for a few days for example. Play time with his or her friends of the same age can get a child out of a dark mood.
Children’s reactions to death, however, vary significantly according to their ages, experiences and their family’s reactions as well.
“Children are usually deeply affected especially if they are older and the person they lost was a close family member, notes Kotb. “There are also a number of factors that can decrease the severity of the loss, like how close the relationship is with the child.
“For example the loss of the mother entails the worst loss for a child because it means loss of nurturing, care and love.