Most young children have seen characters die on television, and perhaps they have a friend who has lost a loved one, or they may have even lost a pet. Being aware of death, however, doesn’t necessarily mean a child understands it. You can’t shield your child from loss, but you can help them through it and, in doing so, equip them with coping skills they will need in the future.
Remember that every child grieves in his or her own way
Your child may swing between expressing sadness and playing as though nothing happened. Playing doesn’t mean the child isn’t grieving, rather, it can be a coping mechanism that offers a release to keep the child from feeling overwhelmed. Some children regress, wet the bed, suck their thumb, or slip into baby talk. Help your child express emotions through art, making a scrapbook, revisiting memories, and looking at photos.
Follow your child’s lead
It’s hard to know how much your child understands about death. Try to answer your child’s questions in ways they can understand and without giving too much information that could be overwhelming. Be direct and make sure you answer their question honestly. Don’t speak in euphemisms, as they can be confusing. If you talk about the lost loved one as having gone to sleep, your child may become confused and expect them to wake up, or could become afraid of falling asleep. You may not always know how to answer, but it’s important that your child knows you are available to talk. Don’t be afraid to respond to a question by asking your child what he or she thinks or already knows. This can give you some clues to how much they are ready to hear.
Whether you want your child to attend the funeral is an individual decision and should be based on your child’s needs and not based on anyone else’s needs (e.g. family members). Funerals can help give a sense of closure, but can be overwhelming. Don’t force your child to go, and be sure they know what to expect if they do attend (is it an open casket, for example). Don’t be afraid to leave in the middle of the service, or take them out of the room if needed. If they were close to the person, encourage them to go without pressuring them. Assure them that the decision is up to them. You can certainly consult with a therapist before making the decision, if they are too young to make the decision themselves.
What do you believe happens when people die? Make sure to talk to people around your child so that they are not getting mixed messages. They should hear from you that different people believe different things (if that comes up as an issue). Often times younger kids want to believe what their parent believes, so when they ask you what you believe, most of the time they are really asking “what should I believe”. The idea that the deceased lives on can be comforting to a grieving child, but you need to tell them the truth of what you believe. If your religious beliefs include an afterlife, share those beliefs with your child. If not, talk about keeping the person alive in the hearts of those they loved.
Don’t hide your own grief
Showing your child that you are also grieving is comforting as it shows them their feelings are normal and nothing to fear. At the same time, don’t be afraid to find a relative or friend that can help care for your child so you can get some time to yourself. This will also help reassure the child that there are plenty of people ready and willing to step in so they will always be loved and cared for, no matter what.
If it is their parent
The topic of a child losing a parent needs to be an entirely different blog post because it is much more intricate than what I just wrote. Although all of this still pertains to the grief of a child who has lost a parent, there is much more to talk about. Please see my blog post titled: “Helping Your Child Grieve the Loss of Their Parent” for more about helping your child through the death of a parent (that blog will be published on June 25, 2017).
If your child seems to be having an especially hard time coping with the loss, you may need to seek out help. If you are looking for a therapist who can help with grief, please call or email me.