Childwise: Helping Your Child Deal with Death

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Childwise is a medical advice column for parents of children ages birth to 21. 

By Kathleen Ganster

One of the most difficult issues for a parent to help her children deal with is death – death of a grandparent, parent, or even a pet can be overwhelming for anyone and when you are dealing with your own grief, helping a child with his grief can be challenging.

The Highmark Caring Place is an organization dedicated to assisting children with loss. With four locations including Pittsburgh, Cranberry, Harrisburg and Erie, they offer support groups, telephone support, resource referrals, and programming to families who have faced a loss.

Terese Vorsheck, director, said the best thing a parent can do is to be honest and caring.

Terese Vorsheck

“Don’t be afraid to talk about it. Talk about the person who died – the child may need to talk about their loved one and if you don’t talk, they may be afraid to mention the person,” she said.

Vorsheck said when you lose a loved one, the only thing you have left is the memories, so it is important to share the memories and happy times as well as talking through the grieving process.

“And don’t be afraid to use the word ‘died.’ You don’t want to confuse the child by not saying what happened,” she said.

When parents use words such as “passed away,” “passed on,” or “deceased,” the child will be confused.

“Don’t tell them the person is sleeping. The child will expect them to ‘wake up’ and may cause anxiety when they go to sleep,” she said.

Some parents are uncertain on whether to take a child to a funeral home and Vorsheck said that is a very personal, individual decision.  She encourages every family to make that decision based on the child’s age and maturity. There are no exact guidelines.

“As an organization, we encourage families to take their children, but every family must make that decision,” she said.

If you do decide to take your child to the funeral home, prepare her by explaining what it will be like – the sights, sounds, smells and the fact that others may be upset.

“You may want to go for a private viewing if you can,” Vorsheck suggested. And if you take your child, if she wants to leave right away, don’t be surprised.

“They might be OK, and then want to leave, so have a Plan B for the child,” she said.

She also suggested that if a child is hesitant, don’t force her to go to the funeral home.

You may find your child needs additional support through counseling and support groups such as those offered at the Caring Place. Don’t be afraid to reach out for support.

“It is helpful for children to know they aren’t the only ones going through this, that their feelings are natural and that is where the support groups can be so helpful,” she said.

It is also hard to explain to a child why someone died, particularly when we don’t understand death ourselves. The important thing is for the child to know she can go to you for support.

“Be prepared for the difficult questions, but it also all right to say, ‘I don’t know,’” said Vorsheck.

For more information on the Highmark Caring Place visit http://www.highmarkcaringplace.com.

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