A child’s ability to cope with death and grief is very different than our ability as adults. While children are aware of the concept of death, sometimes, they are unable to fully comprehend it–which is entirely normal. The awareness of loss can come from a TV show they watch or perhaps a friend who has lost a loved one; however, experiencing loss firsthand is very different and can be a confusing time for them. Although we cannot shield our children from the pain associated with loss, what we can do is help them develop strong coping skills that are healthy and healing.
Although many adults have trouble with facing death, it’s essential to have open and honest conversations with your children about it. It’s certainly won’t be an easy task but it will help them understand the nature of death, allowing them to process their loss in a healthy manner. Unfortunately, far too many children imagine death as a temporary state–that their loved one will be back soon. Many children think death is a trip to heaven–if that is your religious belief–is their temporary destination. While it may not easy to explain, it’s essential that your child understands the permanence of death. It’s very unhealthy for them to hold on to the longing that their loved one will return soon.
During your discussion of death, remember to remain very direct and avoid euphemisms as much as possible. Children take everything you say very literally, so you don’t want to confuse them. Be open, honest, and answer any questions they may have (and they will have a lot) to your best ability.
Encouraging Grieving and Expressing Feelings
It’s important to remember that child grieve much differently than adults do. Pay close attention to any sudden changes in mood–from crying one moment to playing with their toys the next moment. While crying is a definite display of sadness, playing with their toys may be their form of a defense mechanism. In very young children, signs of developmental regression may occur–wetting the bed, baby talk, forming an imaginary friend, etc. If you notice any of these occurrences, it’s essential that you take the time to talk to your child. Encourage them to express their feelings.
Parents, there are many excellent children’s books about death. Perhaps, reading these books together can be a wonderful way to start the conversation with your child and build from there. However, if your child is having trouble expressing their feelings through words, drawing, telling stories, and looking at old photos can be a very helpful outlet.
Most importantly, to truly help your child, it’s important that you are in touch with your own emotions and allow yourself to grieve as well. With abundant love, support, and understanding, parents can help their children manage their grief and adopt healthy coping skills.
For more information on resources for coping with loss, please visit https://www.passaway.org/.