Coping With Death of Loved Ones

April 2, 2009 by  
Filed under Ask Dr. Vicki, Child Development

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Dear Dr. Vicki,

We recently had 2 deaths in the family, my aunt and a family friend, which my (7 year old) daughter was close to. I told her about my aunt but I have not told her about the family friend because the deaths were within a week of each other. Did I make the right decision about not telling her right away? If so, when do I tell her? If not, how do I handle it?

Dear Caring Parent:

I am very sorry to hear of your losses. Not only do you need to help your daughter through her grief, but you need to allow yourself to deal with yours, as well. It is important to allow your daughter to see your sadness, and perhaps even cry together. Crying is a very normal grief reaction. If children see their parents “being strong,” and not showing emotion, they oftentimes feel that they shouldn’t either. It is also important for your daughter to know that even if it makes you cry, you still want her to come to you with her feelings.

Losing so many people in her short life must be very difficult for your young daughter. It is best to continue giving the kind of explanation that you have already given regarding the other deaths she knows about. The consistency will help her understand the concept of death in the way she can at this stage in her development.

It was perfectly fine to give a little bit of time in between the news of each death. However, I do think it is best to tell her about the death of your family friend shortly, so that she does not hear it from someone else.

If you are using a spiritual explanation for death, you may want to reassure your daughter that God, or whatever concept she knows, has a special plan for people, and that you think this plan includes her well-being for a long, long time to come. Be careful not to promise that nothing will happen to you, because this is something that you cannot guarantee. But if this is a concern of hers, which it most likely is, you can assure her that you take good care of yourself and believe that the plan is for you to be here to be her Mommy.

Avoid trying to take away her feelings. Let her have them. Allow her to lead, and be a good listener. Provide lots of love, support and physical reassurance. Talk about memories she has. Some children like to draw a picture of a special memory they have, or look at photos of themselves with their loved ones, and even have a picture in their room or their own scrapbook that they can look at when they are feeling sad. Also, happy memories are very important, because they do not go away with a death. Those we can hold onto and cherish forever.

I do not know the causes of these deaths. However, if they were a result of aging or serious illness, these are concepts that she can understand. In the case of an accident, again you can reassure her about the safety precautions you take (i.e.– wearing a seat belt) that help avoid anything from happening to the both of you.

One of a child’s central concerns at this age tends to be, “Who will take care of me?” For this, you will want to reassure her that you do not plan on going anywhere, but should you became sick or something happen to you, _________ will be there to take care of her. She needs to know that there will always be people in her life to look after her, no matter what.

You sound like a very caring mother, and I can tell that you have only your daughter’s very best interest at heart. I appreciate your trust in sharing your important question with me and asking for my advise and guidance.

My sincere wishes for yours and your daughter’s emotional healing.

-Dr. Vicki

© MMVI Vicki Panaccione, Ph.D.

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