When a loved one dies, it can be difficult toknow how to help kids cope with the loss, particularly as you work through yourown grief. By being open and honest, encouraging communication, and sharingyour own feelings, you and your children cope with painful times and begin yourhealing journey together.
Childhood and Grief
A child's ability to understand death varies according to his or her age.
Infantsand Toddlers feel the loss through the absence of a loved one, interruptionin their regular routine, and through the grief they sense in their parents orother family members. Make sure to spend extra time holding and cuddling thechild, and try to keep them on a regular schedule as much as possible.
Younger children might have troubleunderstanding the permanence of death or differentiating between fantasy andreality. They also might believe the death of a loved one is a form ofpunishment for something the child did. When you talk to young children about death,make sure to use concrete language, avoid euphemisms, and reassure the childthat the death is not a consequence of something he or she did.
Older children are beginning tounderstand the permanence of death, and might associate it with old age orpersonify it in terms of frightening images or a cartoonish boogeyman. Theyoften know more about how the body works, and have more specific questions.It's important to answer their questions to the best of your ability, andprovide as much specific, factual information as possible. Try to keep them toregular routines, and give them opportunities for the constructive venting offeelings and grief.
Teenagers process grief more likeadults, experiencing anger and sadness as they begin to cope. Don't feeldisappointed if it seems that they may want to talk more to their friends thanto parents, this is normal and can help them to share their feelings and heal.Because their grief is similar to that of an adult, a teenager may take longerto recover from a loss than a younger child. Questions may come up aboutmortality and vulnerability, and your role is to empathize with them, listen totheir concerns, and remind them that their feelings are normal and things willget better with time.
Tips for Talking to Children about Death
- Use concrete terms when talking aboutdeath. Don't shy away from the words "death" and"dead". While it might seem gentler to use phrases like "passedaway" or "went to sleep", this can be confusing for a child andlead to difficulty understanding the finality of death.
- If your child doesn't understand what deathmeans, try explaining it in terms of the body, such as "AuntRachel's body stopped working".
- Encourage questions, and answer them to thebest of your ability.
- Be honest when you don't know theanswer. An honest, "I just don't know the answer to that one",can be more comforting than a made-up answer or an answer you don't believe.
- Your child will probably be dealing with a lotof difficult emotions, some of which he or she may not have experiencebefore. Give your child a safe space to express his or her emotions,and spend time talking openly about his or her feelings and thoughts.
- Remember that recovery is an ongoing process. Young children oftenexperience periods of normalcy which interrupt their intense grief, and thealternating periods might shift over the course of hours, days, or even years.
- Listen to their fears and reassure them. Childrencan develop fears as the result of a loved one's death. Whether it's anirrational fear linked to the cause of death, a fear of losing you or anotherfamily member, or a fear that something they did caused the death to happen,spend time comforting your children and helping to assuage their fears.
- If your family holds particular religiousbeliefs about what happens after you die, you can share them with yourchild as a source of comfort (but don't introduce it too soon, as it might betoo abstract for kids under age 5). An alternate approach is to let them decidefor themselves, by saying something like, "No one knows for sure. Somepeople think you go to heaven, while others believe people come back on earthas different creatures. What do you think?"
- Don't hide your own grief. It's important forchildren to know that adults cry when they're very sad, too, and that theirfeelings of grief are normal and shared by others. Let them know that you'reokay, and find comfort together by sharing your feelings and remembering theloved one who is gone.
- If your child seems to be strugglingespecially hard with a loss, or if grief is seriously interfering with theirday-to-day activities, routines, and outlook on life, don't be afraid toseek professional help or therapy when it's needed.