When someone in your child’s life dies, it can be hard to know what to say or how to tell them. For parents, there is a desire to protect our children from the pain of loss, but just as it’s important for adults to process death and grieve, it’s also important for children to do the same. For many children, their first experience with death can be confusing or they may not know how to react. Here are some key ways in which you can help your child through grief and teach them
Don’t Expect a Linear Experience
Many people are familiar with the 5 Stages of the Grief model: Denial, Anger, Depression, Bargaining, and Acceptance. But what many don’t know is that they are not a checklist we experience in order, they can also come on out of sequence, or with some reactions never being experienced. Everyone’s grief journey looks different, with different reactions presenting at different times, and the same goes for children. There is no place they “ought” to be in the process at any given time.
Use Simple, Age Appropriate Language
As adults, we understand when someone says “Grandpa passed on”, “She’s in a better place now”, or “Uncle Henry is resting in peace”. We use this type of language to try and deliver the news more gently, to avoid our discomfort, and for spiritual reasons. But for children, these types of euphemisms can be confusing and complicate the information you’re trying to share with them. Instead, be compassionate and direct: “I have something very sad to talk with you about. Grandpa died yesterday.” Here’s a book recommendation that can help you find the words: ‘I Miss You: A First Look at Death’ by Pat Thomas: This book uses clear and direct language to explain death, and grieving rituals, and addresses some of the feelings children may have after a loved one’s death.
Talk About Feelings
If you’re also grieving the loss, you may feel like you have to put on a strong or stoic front for your child. However, it’s very beneficial at a time like this for your child to see you cry and express your feelings about the death too. Name what you’re feeling and ask what they’re feeling as well, help them put it into words if they’re struggling: “I know you’re feeling really sad. I’m also feeling sad. We both loved Grandpa a lot.” Listen to your child, and let them process your words while hugging them or holding their hands.
Explain Things That Will Happen and What to Expect
Whether your child says it or not, they are likely concerned about what this will mean in their lives. It’s important to explain what will happen next and what changes will happen long term. The things that might happen next would include the death and grieving rituals of the deceased’s culture, such as a memorial service, funeral, or burial. If your child is related to the person who died or they will have some role in those rituals, then it can help to explain that as well. Be prepared to explain to your child some of the euphemisms they might hear from others, or what to say when people speak to them: “Some people may say things to you like “I’m sorry or your loss”. You can just say “Thank you” or nod if you want.” Make sure they know you or someone else they trust will be there with them. In the long term, if the deceased person had a role or met a need in their life, it can be helpful to let them know how this role will be filled: “Ms. Mary will watch you after school the way Grandma did”. Feeling prepared will reduce the anxiety your child feels about change.
Be Prepared to Answer Their Questions
Your child may have questions about events or what they can do during this time. Be prepared to be thrown some curve balls. I’ve heard questions ranging from “Is it okay not to cry at the funeral?” and “Can I wear the blue shirt he got me?” to “Will she decompose?” and “How do they get the ashes?”. Children aren’t trying to be rude or insensitive, they are genuinely curious and need the information to be able to process the gravity of the event. They also may not ask any questions at all, but still, try to give them information about things they may be struggling to understand.
Doing activities that honor the memory of the deceased is a great way to start to heal grief. Drawing pictures, looking at old photos, writing or sharing stories, lighting a candle for them during a holiday, cooking the deceased’s favorite foods, or releasing a balloon are all memory-honoring activities that can help keep their memory alive while still coming to terms with their death. Some great picture books can give you some ideas: ‘The Invisible String’ by Patrice Karst: This book works great with drawing or crafting activities that help children feel connected to the people in their lives and those who have passed on. ‘The Memory Box’ by Joanna Rowland: This book includes a parent guide to help your child create a box of memories that can help them through the grieving process. ‘Chester Raccoon and the Acorn Full of Memories’ by Audrey Penn: This book offers some good ideas on how to find objects and places that help us think of positive memories of the deceased.
Provide Comfort and Promote Acceptance
Try to notice your child’s feelings and some of the ways their grief might be manifesting. Their grief may include some behavioral as well as emotional changes, such as sad, angry, or anxious feelings; social isolation; persistent thoughts about the death, changes in sleep patterns, and changes in appetite. Providing comfort in times of high distress by talking and listening is important, but afterward diverting your child’s attention to something fun or that they enjoy can help them find acceptance in sad feelings being a part of their life sometimes but not controlling their life. Grief takes time to heal but it makes the journey easier for everyone knowing that we’re not alone and that there is someone to help us through it when we need them.
Written By Hannah DeMello, LCSWA
All through March we are highlighting resources around grief. Our 6-week in-person Moving Through Grief Group starts April 11th, 2023. Registration is now open but space is limited.