In our society, we often find it hard to talk about death. Particularly so if it was a loved one who passed away, and especially if you are having a discussion with your child. Despite the difficulty, parents and carers should not shy away from talking to their children about death and helping them cope with their loss.
How to help your child
Be upfront with your child.
Being upfront does not imply being blunt or insensitive. It does, however, mean that you are honest with your child about what happened. A few examples are:
- Avoid using euphemisms such as, “She’s moved on.”
- Don’t avoid the conversation or put it off because it makes you uncomfortable.
- Do not whisper about the deceased while your child is present.
When you do talk about your loss with your child, use language that is age appropriate, and be willing to answer their questions honestly and sensitively.
Allow them to experience their emotions
Often when someone has died, children are told to “be brave” or to “be strong.” This is actually a big mistake because these instructions do not allow your child to address how they are feeling emotionally. Even if they put on a brave face, they will still be hurting inside. Grief is a powerful emotion and needs to be experienced and expressed for us to process what has happened healthily. Also, this is a significant time to teach your child why it is okay for them to feel and show their emotions. That way, they will know how to cope with loss later on in life.
Create a process for letting go
In our modern society, ceremony and ritual seem to have lost their importance. Yet those moments are incredibly important to us when coping with grief and saying goodbye. You can work with your child to create your own letting go ceremony. For example, they might:
- Write a letter to the deceased and then burn it in a ceremony.
- Plant a tree.
- Build a memorial.
- Create art.
- Recite a poem.
Allow your child to take the lead in brainstorming and implementing their ceremony.
Help them remember
Children might be anxious that they will forget the person they have lost. It can be helpful to allow them to have pictures of their loved one in their room, either on display on in a place they can access them when they want. Let your child choose where the pictures are. It’s also helpful to create a ‘memory box’ containing things that remind them of their loved one.
Check-in with your child
We have a tendency these days to be hyper-focused in our own little worlds; mainly through our screens. Of course, you want to give your child their space, but it is also essential that you to check in with them and make sure they are okay. Otherwise, they may distract themselves with their phones or computers and avoid the grief and other challenging emotions involved with loss. Let them know that you are available to listen and want to support them.
Do things together
Although death can move many other things in your life to the back-burner, it is still essential for you to continue doing things as a family. Yes, a loss has occurred, but that does not mean you should not keep on living. Make sure to continue going to your child’s sporting events, recitals, and other regular activities. Also, plan some fun things to do as a family, such as going to an amusement park or having a board game night at home. Let them know that it is okay to keep living their lives.
Don’t be afraid to seek counselling
Grief counselling can be helpful for the entire family, but especially for children. A therapist trained in grief counselling will be able to help your child as they go through the stages of grief and cope with the loss. Also, a counsellor can normalise what your child is feeling and help them understand what is happening.
Everyone goes through a range of emotions when losing a loved one, and your child is no different. They need help to understand what is happening, how to deal with their feelings, and how to cope with their loss. You and a therapist can help them through this process so that they can know it is okay to move on with their life.
Getting further help
There are a wealth of resources for helping children understand death and cope with grief. The charity, Child Bereavement UK has some excellent downloadable booklets to help children express and understand feelings, build memories and feel less alone.
There are also several storybooks which deal sensitively with loss and are ideal for younger children. Two of my favourites are I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm and Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley.
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verywell