Losing a loved one is difficult enough for adults with fully developed brains and the helpful references of past experiences. We know it's going to hurt, we know dealing with that pain can be a long process, and we also know that it usually gets easier with time. But when you're a child with limited coping skills and a much smaller backlog of experiences — some children might have only been exposed to death through cartoons and the television — death can be confusing.
As parents, of course we'd love to protect our children from ever having to feel the pain of a loss, but the experience is an inevitable one. If you're dealing with the death of a grandparent, a beloved pet, or someone else close to your child, here's how you can help them work through their emotions.
- Make sure your child understands the reality of death. Gently and lovingly, make sure that your child truly understands that death means their loved one will never be physically present again. Don't be alarmed if it takes awhile — even years depending on their age — for your child to understand what that means: that that person can no longer breathe, think, feel, or ever be alive again. If the death was sudden or unexpected, explaining why or how the person died might be important to help your child understand the permanence of the loss. Of course, consider your child's age and ability to understand, and only give them developmentally appropriate information.
- Encourage communication. Be a good listening ear when your child is ready to talk and, if that doesn't happen naturally, encourage them to express their feelings about the loss. That communication not only helps your child process their grief, but it can help build coping skills that will last a lifetime. Answer all questions directly and as honestly as possible, and don't shield your own emotions from them. It is healthy for them to see that you're also grieving.
- Be direct, and don't use euphemisms. Saying your loved one "went to sleep" or "joined the angels" or even "passed away" can be more confusing and even scary for a child. Kids are literal, and direct words will help them understand the reality of the situation and help them develop better coping skills for the future.
- Realize that your child's grief will look different than your own. Children tend to accept the reality of a death in doses. They spend a little time grieving, then return to playing or another distraction. This normal, necessary behavior prevents them from becoming overwhelmed and makes the early days of grief more bearable for them. It's also normal for children to feel angry at the person who has died — or at someone else entirely — and for young children to display regressive behaviors like baby talk or bed wetting.
- Remember the person who died together. Ask your child to share a favorite memory of the person who died, look at pictures or videos of the person together and talk about where they were taken and what they were doing, and share your own favorite memories and personality traits of the person. Doing so allows your child to realize that even though that person is no longer physically with you, you will always have happy memories, and that fact can be a comfort. If your child isn't able to express their emotions and memories through words, try drawing pictures or making a scrapbook.
- Use age-appropriate tools. Seek out children's books about death, and read them together. For younger kids, I Miss You: A First Look at Death ($8) and The Invisible String ($13) are both great resources. For kids ages 6 and up, The Grief Bubble ($12) is a workbook that guides them through the process of expressing their thoughts and feelings about grief.
- Decide whether to include the child in the funeral. Attending a funeral allows us to say goodbye to our loved one in a concrete way. Although it's an important step in grieving, it can also be overwhelming for small children. Never force a child to attend a funeral, but if your child wants to go, make sure you explain in advance what they should expect from the ceremony, especially if there will be a casket. Also explain that funerals are very sad occasions, and people will probably be crying. Allow them to ask questions and try to answer them openly, honestly, and lovingly.