I want to address a topic that I find myself dealing with from time to time as a hospital chaplain and that is notifying children of a family death.
It is not uncommon for children to be shielded from the condition of a dying parent or family member in the hospital. An unresponsive patient with breathing tubes and monitor wires connected to noisy medical machines can be overwhelming to a visitor and especially children. However, there are a few things to consider before you decide to shield your children from a dying family or before you notify them of a family death.
Here are some things I want parents and families to know as they navigate this difficult task of informing children of dying or deceased family…
Consider the age of the children. Older teenagers will process the dying or death of a family member like an adult and there is no reason why they can’t be involved with other family in getting reports from the physician and medical staff. Tweens and younger children may need to be informed separately. The advantage of informing them separately from the adults is they will not have to witness any negative reactions of adults yelling or collapsing in grief.
Children are concerned about family stability. When children learn of a parent’s death their initial fear is what about the other parent? Will they still be here? Will we still have them? What’s going to happen to us? Regardless of the dying or death circumstances, when notification is made to the children, it must include assurances that family will remain with them and help them through whatever lies ahead.
Honesty is a must when informing children. Children grow-up and they don’t need to find out that someone lied to them years earlier about the family members’ death. That leads to doubting issues of a whole host of things regarding the family, as in What else was I lied to about?
Don’t avoid facts when informing children. Children are going to mentally process their grief according to their own age and maturity. Don’t assume that they are going to understand things as you are because you are an adult. What is most important about giving the facts is you don’t want children to make up their own narrative of the circumstances surrounding the death.
Here is an example of what I mean: a young lady found herself in counseling for depression when she was in her mid-twenties. Her counselor explored the death of her mother when the lady was only 12 years old and encouraged her to talk with family to explore her mother’s death. She learned that her mother actually died of a heart attack and not as she had thought, that her mother tripped over a small stool that she left in the middle of the room.
The problem was that the family withheld that fact from her but she did hear an EMT say that her mother may have tripped over the stool in the middle of the room. The twenty-something year old lady was dealing with chronic depression because her 12 year old self assumed that her mother died because she tripped over a stool that she left out in the open. The lady felt, unconsciously at least, that she was the reason her mother died.
Allow me to mention one other thing that comes up about death notification and children when a parent or family member dies from drugs or illicit activities. Often the surviving parent or family is afraid that the children may follow in their foot steps if they know how they died.
In these circumstances I am of the opinion that informing the children, according their age and maturity, of the facts of the death will actually help detour the children from following in their footsteps, especially when that message is reinforced by surviving family.
I’m still contemplating my next post, so stay tuned to see what I’ll write about.
In the meantime, let’s not forget the Lord is not unaware of those that grieve because He has promised in Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn: for they shall be comforted.”