Children Should Know of a Death

I refer to the report “Mum: Papa has gone far away; Widow unable to tell kids the truth that dad has been killed” (The Star, 14 July 2012). As Malaysia’s first and only Certified Thanatologist (Grief Therapist), I wish to share some of my thoughts for the benefit of the widow and the Malaysian public.

Thanatology is a specialised field of study concerning all aspects of death, dying, bereavement and grief, and I am a certified member of the Association of Death Education and Counselling (ADEC) based in the USA.

The children of the deceased real estate agent are aged 11 (son) and 7 (daughter), both in late childhood. Studies have shown that kids in late childhood understand that death is a natural part of life and that death is final.

Children in this age group also have a more realistic understanding of the causality of death and they understand what to expect of the future without the person who has died.

Hence, in Madam Ng Mooi Ning’s case, it is better for the children to be told the truth that their father has died than to say that “he had gone far away”. Moreover, it was reported that Ng’s son was with her at the morgue.

Using euphemisms like going on a long trip or sleeping not only confuses the children but undermines their trust with the adults around them, and may trigger a fear response in them.

Sooner or later, be it during the funeral or at school, they will find out from other people the truth that their loved one is dead and not ever coming back.

Sometimes, if no caregiver explains to the children what has really happened at a level that they can understand, they may even conclude that the silence is due to the fact that they have caused the death of their loved one by simply wishing that person to die.

Although some adults want to spare their children the knowledge that a loved one has died, especially in the case of sudden and traumatic deaths, so as to protect them from the ensuing grief, such protection is not helpful for the children.

Children need the opportunity to say good-by, talk about their feelings, deal with their emotions and resolve personal issues arising from the loss.

Although bereaved children may be unable to find the words to describe their feelings and concerns, caregivers can communicate with them at their level of understanding over their loss experience through drawings, drama, art plays and other modalities.

Adults must find the “teachable moments” when they are willing to open up their innermost feelings.

One study has shown that children who are not supported in their early phases of grief can develop serious emotional and behavioural problems in later life.

On the other hand, another study has shown that bereaved children who have been effectively supported by their caregivers in their grieving process gained positive outcomes such as an increased sense of maturity at a young age, an appreciation for life, ability to cope with adversity, a greater sense of optimism and a desire to help others in need.

Dr Edmund Ng
Resident Director
GGP Outreach