Providing opportunities to talk about and process the loss is important. Be sensitive in responding to your child. Let your child know there are a lot of people in their lives and they will be cared for. If there are questions about you or other loved one dying consider age of child and provide reassurance. Emphasize that you expect to live a long time and that there are a lot of people in their lives and that they will be cared for and loved. Answer questions honestly, but provide a manageable amount of information so not overwhelming a child. Also, a child might repeat questions; answer consistently and understand that it might take time to grasp the finality. Assess what your child knows and clarify any inaccurate information. Provide information as needed and in small doses.
Parents can demonstrate their emotions and model how to communicate their feelings. Letting your child see you grieve and explaining the feelings behind the grief is helpful. Children might react in unexpected ways. Playing can be an adaptive way to cope with feeling overwhelmed. A child might not respond initially or display sadness, anxiety, guilt or anger. Acting out, fluctuating between crying and play, and regressions in behavior might occur.
The handout Helping Your Child Deal with Death provides the following recommendations for parents (https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/death.html)
- Use simple, clear words when talking about death with children
- Listen and comfort
- Put emotions into words (talk about your feelings and encourage children to talk about their feelings)
- Tell your child what to expect (explain any anticipated changes in child’s life or routine)
- Talk about funerals and rituals (explain what will happen and how people might respond or act) *Also let your child choose if they want to go.
- Give your child a role (let child decide what he or she might want to do to help in an unfamiliar and emotional situations)
- Help your child remember the person
- Respond to emotions with comfort and reassurance
- Provide comfort, but don’t dwell on sad feelings (introduce an activity that can help your child feel better)
- Have ongoing conversations to check in and give child time to process loss
Consider the age and developmental level of a child when talking with a child about death. Use simple language and concrete terms to explain death. Young children do not yet understand the permanence of death. For example, preschool children might view death as temporary or reversible. Keep your explanations brief and simple with concrete examples (e.g., not breathing anymore, heart is not working, will not see the person again). Children under 12 years of age might not understand the permanence of death. They might concerned about losing a parent or another loved one. Euphemisms can also be confusing and scary (e.g. “went to sleep” or “went to a better place”). Use the words “dead” or “died”. It is okay to say “I don’t know” to questions.
Remembering the person who died and adjusting to life after loss is also part of healthy grieving. Children can share memories, make a scrap-book, watch videos or look at pictures. Reading books together about death and loss also provides guidance and time to talk. There is no time limit on grieving and it is a process. Finally, as a parent or caregiver, it is important to focus on self-care: get adequate sleep, enough exercise and fresh air, try to eat healthy, and seek support when needed.
- Helping Children Deal with Grief: https://childmind.org/article/helping-children-deal-grief/
Resources for Teens: https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/someone-died.html