A child's world is dramatically altered when a parent dies. A deep sense of insecurity often results from this early loss. As adults, it is imperative to include them in the process of the parent's illness and eventual passing away or else they are left alone to make sense of a truth that is too large and too painful for them to handle alone.
The most natural reaction is to shield children from it and maybe even concoct stories like: "Mummy is visiting her parents" or "Daddy has gone on a trip". But research shows that children between the ages of 5 to 9 years cope better with the grief of parental loss if the facts are shared with them even before the parent has passed away.
A big issue for most children to deal with is guilt. If they are not included in the facts they often end up explaining to themselves that "Daddy went away because he was angry with me". This is a very difficult burden for a child to carry and might mutate into insecurity, low self-esteem and trouble in forming meaningful relationships later on in life. Another very important ritual for the child is saying goodbye to the parent and not having any regrets about this. The festering regret, if present, might turn into hatred for the surviving parent or even for one's own self.
Psychologists who work with children on bereavement issues have devised several ways in which to gently break the bad news to the child. Through stories, pictures, drawings and games it is possible to make them understand how a person leaves permanently once they die. Encouraging their questions and giving them simple answers they can grasp is important at this stage. It helps to emphasize that they are very much loved by their parents whether in life or beyond it so that there is no lingering guilt. Lying really does more harm than it helps because children can sense when such a huge, disturbing fact is being hidden from them. Giving them rational explanations is better for their psychological wellbeing than allowing them to form their own judgments about why their parent is dying.
Expressions of grief such as crying, losing sleep and appetite and being apathetic to activities are also normalized if a child is taken into confidence about a parent's death. Care should be taken to see that the school authorities know of the event so that expressions of grief are not misunderstood.
After all losing a parent is one of the most traumatic experiences that one can go through as a child and care should be taken to ensure that their grief and healing process is as smooth as possible.