By Mimi Greenwood Knight
You know how hard it can be if you’ve lost someone you love. Now, imagine you’re a little kid who doesn’t even grasp the concept and finality of death. Death can occur in many ways. It can be sudden and accidental or prolonged and expected. However it happens, it’s never easy to accept or fully understand. But if your child is experiencing the death of a loved one, there are things you can do to make it easier on them.
Use simple words. Tell your child that someone has died in a calm and caring way using clear, direct words, not euphemisms.
Allow them to grieve their way. Every adult reacts differently to death. Every child does, too. Some will cry. Some will respond with a barrage of questions. Some seem not to react at all. Be present. Comfort your child. Answer their questions directly and patiently.
Offer them words for their feelings. Encourage children to express what they’re thinking and feeling. Label some of your feelings to make it easier for them to share theirs.
Tell your child what to expect. If this death means changes in your child’s life or routine, talk to them about what those changes might be to help them feel prepared.
Explain what will happen next. Your child likely has no experience with wakes, funerals, memorial services, or burials. But joining in these rituals can help them find closure. Just tell them as much as you can beforehand about what will occur and why.
Offer your child a role. Taking a small, active role in the services allows kids to feel part of things and can help them process their loss. An older child might read a poem. A younger child might help select songs to be played or help you gather photos to display.
Help them remember their loved one. Encourage your child to draw pictures or write stories about the loved one. Share some of your memories and let your child know how much joy they brought into the person’s life. Explain to your child that it can take time to feel better after someone so special dies, and that’s okay.
Be there for them long after the service. Over the next few weeks or months — or years — your child will be revisited by sadness and grief and may come up with more questions. Keep conversation lines open, so they know they can talk about their feelings. Some kids may have trouble sleeping or feel particularly sad at night when they have more time to think. Assure them things will get better. It just may take a while.
Remember, regardless of age, grief is a process that differs for each person. Talk often and listen to how your child is feeling. Assure them that healing doesn’t mean forgetting. Their loved one is never completely gone as long as they remember them with love.
A Few “Don’ts” When Comforting Your Child
- Don’t hide your grief from your child. Allow your child to see that it’s normal and healthy to cry and feel sad because their loved one is gone.
- Don’t avoid talking about the person who’s died, thinking it will cause your child pain. Re-living memories or sharing stories can help your child heal and find closure.
- Don’t hesitate to ask for support from your child’s school counselor, physician, Sunday school teacher, pastor, or a hired mental-health professional trained in bereavement.
- Don’t put a time limit on bereavement. Everyone grieves in their own way and on their own timeline. Give yourself and your child time to adjust to the new normal.
- Don’t make your child think they can only be sad now. If their loved one made them happy, then remembering them and talking about them should bring laughter along with the tears, and that’s okay.
- Don’t change your child’s daily routine. Consistency and predictability help children feel safe. Try to keep daily routines and activities as normal as possible, as soon as possible.