Death is not an easy subject for most people. Adults struggle with the enormity and finality of death, and many find it hard to make sense of the feelings that accompany the loss. Children suffer when a loved one dies, and it can be even more challenging for them to process the grief, fear, and confusion that death brings. Learning to talk to children about death is the best way to help them cope with the inevitable and process their pain.
What to Do:
Tell them what happened
Adults often want to shield children from the pain and grief of death, but keeping them in the dark about what has happened will only create confusion for them. They see the tears and the frantic phone calls and the hushed voices. Part of the grief process includes expressing emotion about the loss and having the support of those around you. Tell them what is going on. Tell them that someone they loved has died so that they can start to process their feelings.
Expect a range of reactions to the death
Children express grief in a range of ways. Some children may cry, while others may lash out in anger. Others may ignore the news and act as though nothing has happened. Still, others may regress developmentally and start engaging in behaviors that are immature for their age. Older children may start sucking their thumbs or wetting the bed. Of course, your child’s age will have a lot to do with how they react to death. A teenager, for example, may have a different reaction than a grade-schooler. Be prepared to support them no matter what form their grief takes.
Use the right words
Avoid using terms like, “went to sleep,” “lost,” or “passed on,” when it comes to explaining death to children. Telling a child that someone went to sleep can cause them anxiety about sleeping and add to their grief. Telling them that we “lost” Grandma may lead them to believe that we can simply search for her and find her. Using the words “died” and “death” makes it easier for them to understand and accept and eliminates confusion about what has happened.
Prepare them for what life will be like without their loved one
Talk to them about how life will change now that their loved one has died. Talk about what adjustments the family will have to make now. Will the family have to move from their home? Explain that Grandpa will not be there at their next birthday party.
What not to do:
Don’t avoid connecting with them
Some parents are so overcome with grief that they avoid talking to everyone, even their children. This is normal and understandable. A simple touch or hug can do wonders to lift their spirits. If you are so overcome with grief that you cannot communicate with your children, appoint a trusted person to be their support person. They may have felt that they want to share.
Don’t be afraid to share memories with them
Remembering fond moments that you shared with your loved one can bring your children comfortable while they mourn. If they want to look at old pictures of their family member, sit with them, and allow them to talk about how they feel. Sometimes parents feel that talking about the one who died adds to the pain, but studies have shown that sharing memories can ease the pain.
Don’t put a time limit on their grief
Your child may recover from death quickly and start the healing process early. Other children may take months or years to recover from the pain and grief that accompanies the death of a loved one. The key here is to recognize that you are living in a new normal, and that adjustment may take time. Don’t force things. Time will ease the pain and make it easier to accept, but this timeline is different for every child.
Death is an inevitable part of life for both adults and children. Talking to your children during this difficult time is an important part of the mourning process. By being honest with them, giving them a listening ear, and allowing them to grieve at their own pace, you will give them the support they need to recover from the trauma of loss.
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