Helping Children Deal with Death and Dying

13378863Death and dying are the last topics a parent wants to talk about with their children, particularly if you are struggling to come to terms with it yourself. Unfortunately death is inevitable, and when it is approaching, you should not pretend otherwise. Not telling your children that their parent is dying means they are unable to prepare for it and may have a longer and more difficult grieving period.

The subject of death may also come up when you’re first diagnosed with head and neck cancer. By talking with your children about death, you can discover what they think about it, what misconceptions they may have and what they fear. Talking about death may scare your children even more and bring on an emotional crisis, but hopefully it will bring meaning and a degree of peace to both you and your children if treatment fails and you enter the end-of-life phase of care.

Young children

Here are some points to consider when discussing death and dying with young children:

  • Be sensitive to cues from your child about when to talk about death—the desire to ask about death may not come when you expect it.
  • Begin by asking questions to start a discussion.
  • Expect your child to wonder about dying, life after death and what happens to the body. To answer these questions, know your own views on these topics and be prepared to be honest about your beliefs.
  • Admit that you personally do not have all the answers or know the reasons—share their state of wonder.
  • Use age-appropriate words that are simple to understand—and don’t use too many words when fewer would do.
  • Avoid judging or scolding your child for expressing how they feel about death and dying. Instead, listen for clues for how to help.
  • Take advantage of the natural world to bring up the subject of death (falling leaves, dying insects, changes in season) and talk about it.
  • Don’t be surprised if the child doesn’t seem to really “get it” at first. It is common for small children to perceive death as similar to sleep, and they persist in believing that the person who has passed away just needs to wake up. This is okay, and you do not need to insist that they accept the permanence of death right away.

While the cancer progresses, create opportunities for your young children to be with their dying parent as much as possible and to say goodbye. Explain that the doctors are giving Mom or Dad medicines to make pain go away, and so the sick parent might not be awake all the time or seem like his or her old self. Encourage children to draw pictures, write notes or make video recordings for the parent, particularly if the parent is in a hospital or hospice facility where children cannot visit often.

Adolescents and teens

Teens will already have a fairly developed sense of what death is, but they may have great difficulty accepting that their parent is really going to die. The realization can be crushing or result in extreme emotions. Talking about death is a means of deepening your relationship to your teen.

Consider these points to help your adolescent children deal with the subject of death:

  • Some teens value realistic and frank discussions about the possibility of death. Other teens may have difficulty speaking about it. In both cases, letting them know that their feelings are valid and you are available to talk is important.
  • Teens worry about what may go unsaid or undone. Discussing death and giving them a chance to form memories and achieve closure with their parent can be calming and even gratifying.
  • Encourage your teen to explore his or her feelings with others, including a therapist or other teens who have lost a loved one to cancer.
  • Reassure teens that the pain will get less intense with time and that their lives will be rich and full again one day. This is a very difficult transition, but the family will pull together and lend each other strength.

Just like younger children, teens need to spend time with their parent at the end. Such visits can bring a sense of peace and closure to both parent and child. Though it will be very difficult for your teen to see a parent ill and helpless, they can feel reassured that their parent is being cared for and is not in pain. Encourage your teen to talk with Mom or Dad when they’re able and create memories with their parent to last a lifetime. If they don’t know what to talk about, suggest talking about the teen’s dreams for the future, family history or the parent’s memories. A teen might also keep a journal with their parent or create videos together.