Let’s be real. Grief is tough enough for adults — even though we understand that death is an inescapable part of life. The loss of a loved one is never easy, regardless of our age. That’s why when it comes to explaining grief to kids, we can get a big knot in our throat.
We may have an urge to shield children from sadness after the loss of a beloved family member, friend or pet. But experts say we should be open and honest about death and help kids navigate their feelings surrounding it. “We can’t protect our children from experiencing grief,” says Jeff Nalin, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist. “but we can equip them with coping tools and strategies to help them handle loss, now and well into the future.”
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Open the lines of communication.
Your child may have questions, and it’s OK to give them real answers. Try to avoid making abstract statements that your child might not understand or that might scare them, says Jill A. Johnson-Young, LCSW. Don’t tell them that their deceased loved one is watching them all the time. “That’s stalker creepy, and they won’t shower,” she says. Another example: saying the family cat has “gone to sleep,” could make a kid afraid to close their eyes.
If it applies to them, parents can also add family beliefs about where the soul goes after death into their talks about loss, explains Fran Walfish, PsyD, a family and relationship psychotherapist. But she stresses the importance of explaining in simple terms why death happens in the first place. One option is to compare the process with something they’re familiar with. She gives the following example: “All living things, including flowers, plants, insects, birds, animals are born and get old, wither and then die. Trees live a longer life, and then they die, too. People are like trees . . .” This analogy can assuage a child’s fear.
Make sure your kid understands that Grandma or Fluffy isn’t in pain once they’ve died, Walfish says. This knowledge can be especially crucial for a child who is grieving an unexpected, violent or tragic death, or a death from a terminal illness. Walfish says to avoid the term “sick,” to make sure your little one knows the difference between a terminal disease and a common cold. The goal here is to avoid creating fear around seasonal sniffles.
Stick to routine when possible.
Loss, whether abrupt or expected, can interrupt usual schedules and bring about stress. One way to ease anxiety for kids is to maintain their regular bedtimes and mealtimes. “If their routine must be altered,” Nalin says, “caregivers should explain what, exactly, will be different, and explain that the change is only temporary. Keeping the child informed will help ease the fear and insecurity that accompany grief.”
Routine provides a sense of normalcy during a difficult time, but so can simple kid distractions. Nalin recommends encouraging them to play with friends or relatives. “Taking some time away from the situation will help change their mindset and assure them that life continues, even after a sad event,” Nalin adds.
Prepare your child for what’s ahead.
Depending on their age, you may want to include your child in the funeral or even let them them help with some of the arrangements. Inclusion and participation can give them a sense of control when facing a frightening situation, Nalin says. Participation might involve creating a memory board, for example.
Walfish recommends that children five and up be allowed to attend services if they choose to. Explain ahead of time exactly what will happen in terms of an open casket, a burial process or anything else that might be unfamiliar to them, she says.
Acknowledge feelings and provide comfort.
If you’re reeling from the loss too, you might be tempted to hide in the bathroom and sob into a towel when the tears come. But don’t be afraid to show that you’re upset. One of the ways you can help your child process their own grief is to be open about your emotions. “This is important because it will teach children that their feelings of grief are completely normal and accepted and that it is OK for them to cry,” Nalin says.
Everyone handles grief differently, so your kid’s emotions may not be overt or mirror yours. “They have micro moments,” Johnson-Young explains. “Then they bounce back to being their usual child selves. Then they do it again. And again.”
But it’s best not to brush off these boomerang feelings just because you know they will pass. “Through the process, changes in behavior, such as lack of concentration, bouts of sadness or signs of fear, should be noted and acknowledged, as this will help the child feel more secure,” Nalin says.
Talk about the deceased.
Memorial services often include sharing memories and celebrating the life of the person who has died. Continuing this practice at home and infusing traditions that honor the family member or pet can also help a child cope with the loss. Don’t be afraid to mention Spot when you remember how he always had a stick in his mouth, for example. Or remind them of one of Grandpa’s fishing jokes.
“They need to see that grief includes missing someone after they die and being sad when we can’t see them or talk to them,” Johnson-Young says. “They also need to understand that it is perfectly normal to talk to them anyway and that saying their name and talking about them is how we keep them in our world for the rest of our lives.”
Seek outside help if needed.
Helping your child manage grief while also wading through your own fluctuating emotions can be a lot to handle, but you can find help from a doula. You may be more familiar with doulas concerning the birthing process. Sue Broudy, an end-of-life doula, says the concept is similar. Instead of offering support for a new mother, she holds space and coaches the individual who is dying.
A big part of her role is also to help the family cope with the experience and the loss. “A lot of people wonder if it is going to be voodoo,” she says. But it’s not that at all, and it’s really quite simple. “We step in as open and pure as possible, and we listen,” she explains. Providing undivided attention and holding space for someone who is grieving encourages them to feel safe and grounded in their emotions. An end-of-life doula can help your child feel like they’re going to be OK in the face of sadness.
Cut yourself some slack.
The grief process will be different for each family and each person in it, including the children. These grief guidelines for kids are meant as a roadmap through tough territory rather than a strict set of parenting rules. Use a bit of intuition and go easy on yourself if you get tongue-tied. You got this.
If you’re at a loss for what to say or do, remember Johnson-Young’s mantra: “Our job as the big people is to teach, to support, to continue to keep our loved ones with us after they die, to acknowledge their absence — and to let kids be kids.”