How do you explain tragedy?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 11, 2011


When someone we know dies, it can be difficult to know how to help kids cope with the loss, particularly as the adults around them work through their own grief. A loss of any life is tragic, but a loss of a young person full of promise is one of life’s true tragedies.

How much kids can understand about death depends largely on their age, life experiences, personality and how the adults in their lives are dealing with the loss. The most important thing is to be honest and encourage questions. If you don’t know the answers, tell them so. Create an atmosphere of openness and comfort and let them know that there is no one right or wrong way to feel or grieve.

Children are usually 5 or 6 years old before they truly being to understand that death is final. Children under this age do not need to know specific details of a sudden death of a friend or loved one. Repeating grisly details of death to young children should be avoided and could cause anxiety and stress. Death should be explained in simple terms such as “their body stopped working” and “that doctors could not fix it.”

Know that young children will often repeat the question of where the deceased is, as they have yet to grasp that every living thing eventually dies. Calmly reiterate that the person has died and can’t come back. Also remember that kids’ questions may sound much deeper than they actually are. For example, a 5-year-old who asks where someone who died is now probably isn’t asking whether there’s an afterlife. Rather, kids might be satisfied hearing that someone who died is now in the cemetery. This may also be a time to share your beliefs about an afterlife or heaven if that is part of your belief system.

As kids mature into teens, they start to understand that every human being eventually dies, regardless of anything they try to do. Teens often attempt to search more for meaning in the death of someone close to them.  Know that normally when they ask why someone had to die they probably are not looking for literal answers, but they are beginning to explore their ideas of the meaning of life. In the case of an accident it’s best to respond and emphasize how frightening and sad the death was.  The best thing you can do is to encourage the expression and sharing of grief and share your own feelings. Your child may be feeling depressed, angry, confused, anxious, or any number of emotions. Be honest with him or her and encourage questions. And, as teens tend to go to extremes about everything, you can expect that your teenager could feel and react to this loss very intensely. The best thing you can do is to keep a subtle watch on both your own and your child’s emotions as you grieve. Every experience of grieving is different, and grieving can’t be hurried, one of the biggest things you can do to promote healthy grieving is to send the message that it’s OK for your child to express their emotions, and give them the space and time to do it. If your teen’s reaction continues beyond a few weeks or negatively affects other aspects of their life, consider seeking help.

Lisa Patterson is a licensed counselor specializing in play therapy, and children’s issues. She is in private practice in Andalusia and may be contacted at 334.222.7094.