The death of a loved one is immensely challenging for anyone, for children especially. Not only will they experience loss powerfully, but they might feel a lot of confusion.
Grief stems not only from death. Kids also grieve the loss of a pet, separation of parents, changing schools or the end of a friendship. But whatever the cause may be, it is important to handle the grief in a way that supports and helps children through this journey.
Here, we take a look at five ways you can support your child through this difficult process.
5 ways to help your child deal with grief
Listen and talk
Probably the most important thing is listening and talking to your child. After a death, many children want to share their thoughts and feelings. Think of it as a healing experience for them. While it might be a huge challenge if you are grieving too, allowing your child to express their grief and sadness and being prepared for questions are crucial.
If the task of talking is just too overwhelming, consider asking someone close to you to help with the discussion in the initial stages. Your child may want to talk in small doses, so it is important you are prepared for these precious moments.
Make sure that you give your child plenty of hugs and cuddles. They must continue to feel they are cared for, particularly at this difficult time. Reassure them that they are in no way to blame, that they are safe.
Children sometimes worry that you or someone else close to them might die too. Let them know that you are healthy and that you are doing everything you can to live a long life so that you will be there to care for them.
Explain what death means
Never assume that what your child knows about death is based on their age. A good way of approaching the subject is by asking them what they do know – what their ideas, thoughts and feelings are about death. This will help you explain it in a way that aids their understanding. Even toddlers with limited vocabulary can understand basic concepts.
You might want to describe death in a way that you believe is more comforting for your child with phrases like, ‘Nanny went to heaven’, or ‘Poppy has gone to sleep forever.’ However, such expressions are likely to cause even more confusion. Your child might believe that if they go to sleep, they will never wake up, or that death is a temporary separation. In cartoons and movies characters might die and come to life again. So, it is best to reinforce the truth that death is irreversible and permanent.
We all want to protect our children from death. This is only natural. But children need to be aware that death is an inevitable part of life. As discussed earlier, make it clear that they are in no way to blame, that nothing they could have done or not done caused the loved one to die. Perhaps talking to your child about how the person died in simple terms, but avoiding graphic details, will reassure your child they are in no way responsible.
You might find that your child is reluctant to talk about the death because they see it is a subject that upsets you. They might withhold questions. Don’t force them to talk but invite them to discuss their thoughts and feelings with you over the coming days. Let your child know that you understand it might be difficult to talk about but that they can always come to you for support. By expressing your emotions, you are showing your child it is OK to cry and be sad.
Your child might worry that they will forget the person who died. Invite your child to keep the memories alive through pictures, stories, photo collages, or ask them what they would like to do that helps you both commemorate the loved one. Involve the whole family and continue to talk about the person in daily conversations. Consider ways you can remember the person during special events such as birthdays, Christmases and holidays. Ask your child how they would like to remember the loved one on special occasions.
If your child would like a small physical object to remind them of the person who died, you might give them a photograph or piece of jewellery, which they can keep in a special place. It is OK for your child to keep a piece of clothing with the person’s scent on if that’s what they want.
It will be natural for your child to be sad when a reminder, such as a birthday, favourite movie or food triggers them. Explain that this will happen but that it will become easier over time, and that this is OK too. It does not mean they will forget the loved one.
Look for troubling signs
Children often feel angry when someone close to them has died. They may even be angry at the person for leaving them. You may become the focus of this anger. The most important thing is not to show anger back or criticise them for being angry. Acknowledge that it is a natural emotion during the grieving period. Encourage your child to talk about it with someone — if not with you someone they are close to. But also realise it is never OK for your child to hurt others.
Your child might also regress to the age of a baby or toddler. They might start wetting the bed or become clingy. Realise these are normal reactions for children still grieving.
These signs are all natural following the death of a loved one. But if you notice signs that continue in the long-term and are not likely to change, your child may need professional help.
For example, if you child is continuously displaying aggressive behaviour and anger, has unexplained physical symptoms such as stomach aches and headaches, has sleeping or eating difficulties, challenges with school and peers or self-destructive behaviour, it may be time for therapy or counselling. Consider your child’s school counsellor, a paediatrician, support groups and special camp programs.
There is help available.
Take care of yourself too
Remember the grieving process affects you too. You too might feel overwhelmed, confused and unable to move forward especially when you have children to look after and support. You might find it difficult to remain patient while catering to your child’s extra needs.
Remember that it is OK for you to express your sadness in front of your child. It is OK for you to reveal your distress too. You are allowed to grieve as well.
But if you feel defeated, consider seeking professional help for yourself. There are counselling services, grief groups, and internet-based services for people in bereavement available to you.
Just remember that while it might feel that nothing will ever be the same again, grief does change over time. Life will continue to go on. It will become more bearable as the feelings of loss and sadness lessen.
Although you might not believe it at the time, teaching your child the raw truth about death is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. You are helping them develop the tools they will need throughout life to help them deal with grief and loss.