Bergie astonished all and sundry in a post on this forum when he appeared to be much more compassionate and caring than we all thought. He addressed the question on how to cope with a child's fears of death and whether they would ever see their parents, friends, pets, in fact anybody close to them ever again after death. He seemed to suggest that the way to go is to talk about miracles and explain to the child that they would meet loved ones again somehow after death.
I can remember as a small child how this also worried me. From my experience with my own children and grandchildren, it seems that young children often worry about death and what would happen afterwards. Bergie's post started me thinking as well. Now, I'm merely a vet and am not qualified to give advice of this nature, but it got me thinking: so here are my thoughts on the matter:
Irrespective of your own beliefs or prejudices, should you foist your own beliefs on a small child? My view is that this would be inappropriate. Just as you shouldn't start on a long explicit explanation of sex to a small child, I believe that the best approach would simply be to answer questions when they are asked.The answers should also be age-appropriate.You cannot possibly expect to have any impact if you launch upon a long philosophical lecture about whether God exists or not. I would also steer clear of frightening a child with hell-fire and damnation if he/she does question your own beliefs (whatever they are: fundamental Christianity, Islam, Judaism, all the way through to agnosticism and finally atheism).
My own childhood was spent in constant fear of not making it to heaven and burning in hell. I had no doubt about where I was heading. I knew my mother would definitely be going to heaven and I really tried hard to become 'born again.' But from all that I'd been taught, I knew that I would never see her again because I wasn't born again...
I've done some research on guidance to parents (and I suppose grandparents) here: http://kidshealth.org/parent/emotions/feelings/death.html
The author(s) confirmed that my approach was the correct one: 'How much kids can understand about death depends largely on their age, life experiences and personality. But there are a few important points to remember in all cases."
Here are the points the author(s) make:
"Be honest with kids and encourage questions. This can be hard because you may not have all of the answers. But it's important to create an atmosphere of comfort and openness, and send the message that there's no one right or wrong way to feel.
'A child's capacity to understand death — and your approach to discussing it — will vary according to the child's age. Each child is unique, but here are some rough guidelines to keep in mind.'
Up until 5-6 years old, the world of a child is very literal. For instance if the person who passed away is old, you may tell the child that his/her body 'stopped working' properly 'and the doctors couldn't fix it.Use the same technique if the death is sudden due to an accident. Tell the child that because of the accident the body stopped working.
'Kids this young often have a hard time understanding that all people and living things eventually die, and that it's final and they won't come back. So even after you've explained this, kids may continue to ask where the loved one is or when the person is returning. As frustrating as this can be, continue to calmly reiterate that the person has died and can't come back.'
It is counterproductive to lie to the child that the deceased person 'has gone away', or 'went to sleep'. Because children of that age take things literally. They may become afraid to go to sleep or get very concerned when somebody goes away.
'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.'
Older children (from 6-10 years) begin to grasp the finality of death. Give clear, simple, honest and accurate explanations. Teenagers start questioning the meaning of life or 'why did my friend have to die in a motorcar accident?' They may even be scared to get into a motorcar. The best way to respond is to empathize about how frightening and sad this accident was. It's also a good time to remind your teen about ways to stay safe and healthy, like never getting in a car with a driver who has been drinking and always wearing a seatbelt.
To sum up: Only answer questions when they are asked. Be open and honest and remember that your child is frightened enough as it is without being scared by sermons about how to avoid going to hell when they die.
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