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I have a mom friend who bought a goldfish for her 4-year-old with the specific intention of creating a circle-of-life lesson. When the fish inevitably died, they had a funeral, talked about memories, and processed their grief. She called it a “low-impact death experience,” and, to be honest, I’ve always thought it was a cool idea.
Even if your preschooler hasn’t yet had firsthand experience with the death of a loved one or a pet, she will be curious about the “d” word, and what she sees and hears in books and on TV. “Where did the parents go?” is a common question mid-Disney movie.
“Children this age have a job to find out how the world works,” says Dr. Laura Markham, psychologist and author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.” “They learn red and blue, up and down, life and death — it’s just one more item on their list of Things to Figure Out.” But for parents, of course, it’s a loaded topic. “None of us understand death — our brains can’t make sense of someone being gone permanently,” Markham tells Yahoo Parenting. “Start by recognizing that death is a mystery and we don’t comprehend it.” So what to say to your kids? Markham (who, by the way, thinks the fish idea can be pretty smart) shares her specific tips:
Stick to the Facts
“There are things about death that kids can understand, so tell them what we do know,” she says. “The person’s body stopped working, and they don’t feel anything physically anymore. Death is final, and people don’t come back. The people left behind have powerful feelings about missing the person who died. It’s okay to acknowledge the loss.”
Explain Grief and Its Purpose
“When a child experiences a death, they don’t know that the bad feelings won’t last forever,” says Markham. It’s important to tell kids that we will be glad again. “You can also tell them that expressing sadness — through crying or sharing stories about the dead person — helps us to heal ourselves, which is a great way to honor the person we’ve lost.”
Keep the Connection
Make children aware that even if someone close to them dies, they can still love that person and feel a lifelong connection to him or her. “It’s okay to say that someone lives on through our love for them and our memories,” notes Markham.
Let Them Know They’re Safe
“Children will not feel secure after someone dies — they’ll wonder if they are going to die, or if you are going to die,” cautions Markham. Communicate that they’re safe, and that while in nature everything is born and grows and dies, most of us get to live a full, long life. “Reassure them that you plan to live for a very long time. I used to say to my daughter, ‘You’ll live until you’re a very old lady!’ And also assure them that if anything did happen to you, they would be taken care of, by Daddy, or by another relative. Be specific — they want concrete answers and it’s okay to give them.”
Whatever They Feel is Okay
“You may notice a regression in your child after a loss, or they may act strangely — laughing one minute and crying the next,” says Markham, adding that this behavior is normal. “They don’t understand what they’re feeling or what the people around them are feeling, and it’s crucial to let them know what whatever they feel is okay. If they’re laughing, don’t think it means they didn’t love their grandmother; if they’re moping for a while, don’t urge them to cheer up. Let it be.”
“It’s Not Your Fault”
“Kids take big events like divorce and death very personally — they always blame themselves,” says Markham. “Your child needs to know, very clearly, that they were not the reason someone died. Remind them that even if we were angry at someone once, or if they had bad thoughts, that does not cause a person to die. Tell them: ‘It’s not your fault.’”
Show Your Own Grief
“Our grieving gives our children permission, through our leadership and cues, to express their own sadness,” says Markham. “They will shut down their feelings if they think it’s not safe to share them, so be the example and let them see your emotions. Communicate clearly that they didn’t make you sad, that you’re sad because this person died, and it’s not their job to make you happy again. You’ll cry for a while, and then you’ll have lunch together. You want kids to know that the sad feelings aren’t dangerous and letting them come is a way to heal.”
Symbolic expressions of grief — drawing pictures for a departed loved one, putting up photos, writing lists of things we remember — can help immensely with big feelings of loss. Markham also suggests planting a tree for someone, or making a yearly habit of lighting a candle on their birthday and telling stories about them. “Grief lives in our bodies and circles back around on anniversaries,” she says. “So letting your whole family have a way to channel those feelings in a loving ritual is important.”
Say this Sentence:
“Together our family can make it through anything.” It’s important for children to know that unequivocally.