What to say and not say when there’s a death in the family
Dealing with the death of a relative or a dear friend is one of the greatest challenges a person will ever encounter in life. There’s the disbelief, the denial, extreme grief and sometimes, even condemnation.
Oftentimes too in this process, adults who have to deal with the emotional and physical strain of mourning overlook the involvement of children, thinking they are too young to understand the whole ordeal and they can be sidelined in the corner by telling them a few words.
Child psychiatrist Genuina Ranoy of St. Luke’s Medical Center and The Medical City warned that neglecting to inform and letting children understand death—most especially if the deceased has had a close relationship with them—could have implications on their well-being.
Ranoy, who has been in practice for 14 years now, shared with The Manila Times what parents or adults can say to ease the process for children.
“Anxiety, depression and behavioral problems—these are the common reaction of both children and adults when it comes to death of a loved one. As for children, the reaction varies depending on their age and their affinity with the deceased,” Ranoy first told The Manila Times.
According to the psychiatrist, toddlers—children under the age of three—have no clear concept of death. They often think there’s no finality and that their loved one is just sleeping or can go back anytime they want to.
On the other hand, Ranoy cautioned that children three years and above have the tendency to blame themselves for the loss, most especially of a close family member.
If the latter is the case, Ranoy advised parents to assure children that there was no way the death could have been their fault. She even warned adults not to give the slightest insinuation that children can cause the demise of a relative or somebody close to the family.
Additionally, for both cases, Ranoy tipped, “Tell them that it’s alright to cry, to grieve and to miss the person, but that eventually the pain of losing this person will go away.”
The psychiatrist also advised parents to let their kids feel scared: “Acknowledge their emotions. If they feel scared, don’t get mad at them. But never scare them or threaten them that the ghost of a relative will visit them.”
Another no-no is for parents to make their children sounding boards and burden them with the predicament of the household, most especially if the deceased was the family provider. Doing so might cause fear and anxiety for children.
Ranoy then added pointers in explaining how death, if such is the case, came from a prolonged medical illness or accident.
“If it’s a sudden death—hostile, aggressive or violent, like accidents—children tend to feel scared and threatened. Besides reassuring them, make sure that you do not give them the nitty-gritty of the death. For example, simply say, ‘Your father/ brother/ uncle/ grandfather was shot or had a car accident and was taken to the hospital. The doctors tried their best but he passed away’,” Ranoy advised.
Ranoy said that finding the right timing when to deliver the sad news is also an integral part of talking about death to children.
“Assessment is a must, an adult must determine if the child is ready. If he is, it is best to deliver the news when he is comfortable and relaxed,” the psychiatrist pointed out.
When all has been said and done and the child’s grief is still intense, Ranoy said that it might be the right time to seek professional help.
“While there’s no definite time frame when to get over a loss, the intensity of grief should diminish from six months to a year. If children are still functional, meaning they can go back to school, do their assignments and accomplish different things—even if they are not as energetic to do so—then there’s nothing to worry about.
“But if they are consistently crying, no longer functioning at school, eating, or playing, and if they have persistent nightmares, if they don’t want to be alone at any given time, and most alarmingly, if they have thoughts of joining the deceased, then you have red flags that the child might not be coping well with the loss. My advice is to seek professional help immediately,” the psychiatrist detailed.
Whatever the circumstances may be, Ranoy finally advised the following to help both children and adults cope with their grief: “Sometimes it helps when you talk about the person who died, and remember the good things about them. It’s actually true for all ages that it helps to talk about the person. I also advise doing rituals. For example, gather the family and let everyone who’s affected—including children—talk about their emotions and what they think about the deceased. Let them open up what they think their life is going to be like now that the person is no longer there,” the expert ended.