Death can be a confusing concept for children to understand. Every child grieves differently. Common emotions may include sadness, guilt, anxiety, or anger at the person who has died or someone else.
Children may complain of headaches or stomachaches, and not want to go to school or other activities. Some children may appear unaffected and continue playing. Do not be concerned if your child seems unsympathetic, playing may be a defense mechanism to prevent depressing feelings. Other children may resort back to baby-like behaviors such as wetting the bed, baby talk, or constantly wanting to be held. If your family has experienced the loss of a loved one or pet, below are some tips to help your children understand and cope with death.
Use direct language
When explaining the situation to your child, use direct, age-appropriate language. For instance, “Mia, I have some very sad news to tell you. Grandma has died. She is no longer alive anymore, and we will not be able to see her”. Although this may seem brutally honest, children understand and use words like death and dying more naturally than adults. Phrases like “Grandma has passed” or “She is no longer with us” can be confusing and ambiguous for children.
Once you have told your child the situation, explain how that person will always be in your hearts. You can share fond memories and explain how you will always love and remember them. If you have a religious affiliation, this would be a good time to explain your beliefs of the afterlife
Tell the truth
Often times if a pet dies, families may replace the animal without notifying the child. Families may also use the common fib that the pet “went to the farm”. The death of a pet can be a sad time for families, but it allows for children to develop healthy coping skills to use in the future. Give the child time to cope with the loss before replacing the pet with a new animal. For the death of family or friends, be honest with your children. Do not make up phrases such as “Grandpa went to sleep” because not only will it scare the child of bedtime but also interfere with their development of healthy coping.
Answer all questions
Allow time after you share the sad news for questions. As mentioned before, answer all questions honestly. While answering, try to stay brief but informative. Do not share details about the death if you feel the child is not mature enough. Focus on the facts that will affect your child the most, such as visits with that person or weekly phone calls.
Express your feelings
You are the role model for your child to understand how people cope with loss. Hiding your feelings and pretending everything is OK sends a confusing message. Express your sadness and model healthy coping strategies.
Let your child express their feelings
Reading a children’s book about death is a great way to talk about feelings of grief. Some great books about death are I Miss You by Pat Thomas or When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown. Other ways to express emotions can be looking at photos, drawing pictures, or telling stories.
Attending the Funeral
Funerals may provide closure for some children, but it can be overwhelming for others. Never force your child to attend. If they want to go, adequately prepare your child for what they will see. If you feel it is not good to go, consider an alternative goodbye such as planting a tree, visiting the tombstone, telling stories, or releasing balloons.
Maintain a routine
Keep your routine as normal as possible. Have your children continue attending school and extracurricular activities. Eat family meals together, read books, and provide extra hugs and kisses. Keeping your schedule the same will help children realize their lives will not change as drastically as they thought.
Coping with death is difficulty for adults and children. If you or your children are having a challenging time dealing with death, be sure to reach out to a professional. Healthy grieving strategies are an important skill for children to learn. Contact Lumiere Children’s Therapy for a consultation with our clinical social worker.
Lumiere Therapy Team
Ehmke, R. (n.d.). Helping Children Deal With Grief. Retrieved October 03, 2016, from http://childmind.org/article/helping-children-deal-grief/
Schuman, C. (2011). Helping Kids Cope with Grief. Retrieved October 03, 2016, from http://www.parents.com/kids/development/behavioral/helping-kids-cope-grief/?slideId=35108