Grieving Children: Helping Your Child Deal With Loss

WebMD Live Events Transcript

Event Date: 08/03/2000.

How should you explain death to children? How can you better understand and help your child deal with grief? Join Charles A. Corr, PhD, to discuss the unique ways children handle loss and how to prepare yourself to guide them through it.

The opinions expressed herein are those of the guest's alone. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to The Informed Caregiver program on WebMD! Our guest today is Charles A. Corr, PhD, and the topic is "Grieving Children: Helping Your Child Deal With Loss".

Welcome, Dr. Corr! It's a pleasure to be speaking with you today. First off, please tell us a bit about your background.

Dr. Corr: I'm a person who has taught courses on death and dying since 1975, and children and death since 1977. I've been interested in issues relating to children and adolescents, and I try to write and help other people write and get published in this area.

Moderator: What does death mean to a child, and is it important to view loss from the perspective of a child rather than trying to impose an adult view on children?

Dr. Corr: It's very important to try and understand a child's view of things -- his or her understanding of death or bereavement. What does death mean to a child? You'd really have to ask the child. Sometimes young children think of death as sleep, and so they ask do dead people eat chocolate cake? What do they do when they're buried or gone to heaven. Sometimes they think of it as travel. But of course, in sleep and travel, there's the possibility of return, and that's not the same as death. You have to ask the individual child what he or she is thinking about, and how they understand a concept like death.

e_knowlton_excite: What is a good age to start talking about death?

Dr. Corr: I would start talking with children about death whenever they show interest in the subject -- not dependent on a certain age. For example, I wouldn't say don't talk to children under age three or five. Watch the child's experience -- if they come across a pet that dies, or when they wonder what it's like when you say you're going to a funeral. It might be that some child needs to know something about death, such as if a grandparent is ill and dying and you need to prepare the child. Think about what the child wants to know, but also what the child needs to know. I would not pay special attention to the child's age.

yingeleh_webmd: My son's grandmother died recently after a long bout with cancer. Is it appropriate to answer all of his questions about how she died?

Dr. Corr: Oh, yes, it's always appropriate to answer a child's questions. You might think about what you say, and that might relate to what happened or what the child needs to know, but I would always try to answer a child's question. Otherwise, the child learns you aren't the person to whom questions can be put, and you can't be trusted to be helpful.

yingeleh_webmd: We are not a religious family, but I sometimes think it would be best if I told him about religious views of death just because it might comfort him. Is this wrong?

Dr. Corr: I would share with a child whatever my values were -- whatever framework I use to make meaning out of life and death. It's also fine to tell children that other people might have other values or beliefs that they use to understand death, but I wouldn't just tell a child a story about a belief that I didn't accept or have confidence in just to comfort the child.

Moderator: Are there certain aspects of loss children can handle a lot better than adults?

Dr. Corr: Good question. I think sometimes children do handle some kinds of loss better than adults because they don't have our life experiences, so they don't see the larger framework or the larger term, and just ask questions about right now. So in that sense, children who questions lots of things about life also question things about death. But this just reminds us of your opening question, that we should always try to look at things from the perspective of the child.

Moderator: Do you feel most parents are unprepared to deal with their grieving child?

Dr. Corr: No, not necessarily. I think sometimes in our society, we want to push off questions about death, particularly we want to put off addressing those in the company of children. We find them uncomfortable, or we're not sure what to say, so sometimes people try to push death out of the mainstream of life. That's not good. Death is a part of life. But I do not think that all adults in our society are poorly prepared or unwilling to help children deal with death. Many are willing to, they just need to be encouraged to do so. And perhaps guided. There are lots of resources. There are books for adults to help children with death. There are books for children that focus on death-related topics. In many places there are support groups for grieving children. We have resources, and we can help, we just need to do it.