When a loved one dies, it can be difficult to
know how to help kids cope with the loss, particularly as you work through your
own grief. By being open and honest, encouraging communication, and sharing
your own feelings, you and your children cope with painful times and begin your
healing journey together.
Childhood and Grief
A child's ability to understand death varies according to his or her age.
and Toddlers feel the loss through the absence of a loved one, interruption
in their regular routine, and through the grief they sense in their parents or
other family members. Make sure to spend extra time holding and cuddling the
child, and try to keep them on a regular schedule as much as possible.
Younger children might have trouble
understanding the permanence of death or differentiating between fantasy and
reality. They also might believe the death of a loved one is a form of
punishment for something the child did. When you talk to young children about death,
make sure to use concrete language, avoid euphemisms, and reassure the child
that the death is not a consequence of something he or she did.
Older children are beginning to
understand the permanence of death, and might associate it with old age or
personify it in terms of frightening images or a cartoonish boogeyman. They
often 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, and
provide as much specific, factual information as possible. Try to keep them to
regular routines, and give them opportunities for the constructive venting of
feelings and grief.
Teenagers process grief more like
adults, experiencing anger and sadness as they begin to cope. Don't feel
disappointed if it seems that they may want to talk more to their friends than
to 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 longer
to recover from a loss than a younger child. Questions may come up about
mortality and vulnerability, and your role is to empathize with them, listen to
their concerns, and remind them that their feelings are normal and things will
get better with time.
Tips for Talking to Children about Death
- Use concrete terms when talking about
death. Don't shy away from the words "death" and
"dead". While it might seem gentler to use phrases like "passed
away" or "went to sleep", this can be confusing for a child and
lead to difficulty understanding the finality of death.
- If your child doesn't understand what death
means, try explaining it in terms of the body, such as "Aunt
Rachel's body stopped working".
- Encourage questions, and answer them to the
best of your ability.
- Be honest when you don't know the
answer. 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 lot
of difficult emotions, some of which he or she may not have experience
before. 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 often
experience periods of normalcy which interrupt their intense grief, and the
alternating periods might shift over the course of hours, days, or even years.
- Listen to their fears and reassure them.
can develop fears as the result of a loved one's death. Whether it's an
irrational fear linked to the cause of death, a fear of losing you or another
family 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 religious
beliefs about what happens after you die, you can share them with your
child as a source of comfort (but don't introduce it too soon, as it might be
too abstract for kids under age 5). An alternate approach is to let them decide
for themselves, by saying something like, "No one knows for sure. Some
people think you go to heaven, while others believe people come back on earth
as different creatures. What do you think?"
- Don't hide your own grief. It's important for
children to know that adults cry when they're very sad, too, and that their
feelings of grief are normal and shared by others. Let them know that you're
okay, and find comfort together by sharing your feelings and remembering the
loved one who is gone.
- If your child seems to be struggling
especially hard with a loss, or if grief is seriously interfering with their
day-to-day activities, routines, and outlook on life, don't be afraid to
seek professional help or therapy when it's needed.