How do I help my child deal with grief?
One of the most difficult lessons a new parent or caregiver will have to give to a child is not just the facts of life—but also of death. Grief is a natural part of life but for young children, it can also be hard to understand. From losing a pet, classmate or teacher to more personal losses like that of a family member, children should be handled with extra care as they learn to understand and comprehend the concept of death as well as experiencing grief for the first time.
Just as every child has his or her own unique behaviors and emotional responses, parents and caregivers should also know that children grieve in many different ways and at different ages. Some children may not show any outward signs of grief. Some may bounce in and out of the grieving process. Some children may seem to get over grief only for it to reappear at unexpected times or at certain points in life. Depending on a child’s temperament, their relationship with the deceased, and even how someone died, a child will respond in different ways. But the good news is that children can learn that grief—and death—is a natural part of life and they can successfully manage their emotions with the help of a parent or caregiver.
Communication is Key
When you need to talk to a child about the death of a pet, a loved one or family member, experts advise adults to use simple and clear words to explain what has happened. Many people avoid using the word dead or died because it makes them feel uncomfortable and, instead, use phrases like passed away, crossed over, went to sleep, etc. However, mental health experts say that being direct and using realistic words to describe what has happened actually helps a child with the grieving process. You may want to start out gentlye with something like, “I have some sad news to tell you. Grandma is no longer with us because she has died.” As you are explaining this, don’t be afraid to show your own tears or grief—doing so will help the child know what is going on so you can share the grieving process together.
Parents and caregivers should expect a child to be upset, angry or they may even be withdrawn for some timea period of time. Young children may regress to immature behaviors or act out in anger. Some children may worry about other friends or family members dying. Whatever their response, adults should accept their child’s emotions and not push them to “feel better” right away. Instead, listen to a child and offer comfort. Allow them to ask questions and give hugs and reassurance.
Questions and Expectations
The death of a loved one—even if it’s a pet—will mean changes in a child’s life. Change can be hard for a child and they may ask many questions immediately after the death of a loved one. They may ask, “Why did Grandma have to leave us?” or “What happens to Grandpa when they take him to the funeral home?” or even “Do cats and dogs go to heaven?” Depending on your religious backgrounds, you may have answers for all of these with the responses based on your own belief systems and/or your cultural and religious background. If youhave believe in heaven or reincarnation you might like to share these thoughts on the afterlife with your child.But also remember it’s perfectly acceptable to answer, “I don’t know,” in response to some of the questions your child may have.
Whether you’re having to bury a pet or planning a funeral for a family member, parents and caregivers can help their child cope with grief by allowing them to be part of the planning process. From reading a poem to asking for help picking photos for the memorial, when a child is part of a ritual for a deceased loved one it can help them regain a sense of control after a loss. Many parents and caregivers also may wonder how old a child should be before they are allowed to go to a funeral. A child that is too young may be a distraction from the ritual or service but if they are old enough to sit still or react appropriately at a family event, they should be given a choice to attend a funeral or at least be a part of the memorial service.
As preparations for the funeral are made, it’s also a good idea to prepare a child for what they will actually see at the funeral home or service. When a child knows exactly what to expect at a viewing or an actual burial—a casket or a cremation urn becomes much less scary. Let them know that people may sing or talk about their loved ones. Let them know that many people may cry and that they may say things like, “I am so sorry for your loss.” By letting a child know exactly what to expect, it’s one more way to help them deal with their loss and learn how to share their grief with others.
As you help your child navigate the new reality without their loved one—whether it’s a pet, a favorite teacher, or a beloved relative—talk about their expectations for the future. Tell them it’s acceptable to still celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and special moments they shared with their loved ones. You can also help your child by asking them to participate in planning the next special calendar event.
Finally, be prepared to talk to your child about their thoughts and feelings as they continue the mourning process. Children often have questions about death that go on for days, weeks, and months even after a loved one passes. The best thing to do is always be available and willing to talk about their grief, about death and how it’s a natural part of the life cycle.
By ABC Quality Team on August 18, 2020