Ten Tips for Helping Your Children Through Grief Over Losing a Loved One
Talking to your children about death is never easy, but sooner or later, every family will get the sad news that a beloved family member or friend has died. Parents then have the important responsibility of guiding their children through grief. Here are ten tips to help you help your kids as they say goodbye to someone they love.
- Because children are concrete-thinkers, use the words dead or died instead of phrases that can confuse them, like passed away, went to her heavenly home, is in a better place, went to sleep, etc. These phrases may seem gentler, but they can make it harder for kids to understand death. Likewise, avoid telling your child biblically inaccurate clichés about the person who died, such as:
- “God needed her more that we did so He took her to heaven.”
- “He’s now an angel in heaven watching out for you.”
- “God couldn’t make her well here on earth so He took her to heaven to heal her.”
- “God needed another flower in his heavenly bouquet so he picked your grandfather.”
- Don’t hide death and grieving from your child. Death is a part of life, and we all will face the loss of people and pets we love. Children benefit from parents who model that it’s okay to cry and mourn losses. On the flip side, it’s also important to not turn your child into your confidante as you grieve but to find adult friends or a counselor or pastor to provide you with additional support.
- Children, like adults, react to loss in varied ways, so be prepared for both expected emotional reactions, like tears, and unexpected emotional reactions, like intense anger or disinterest. Grieving is a journey so your child is likely to display a wide range of emotions over time. Your best response is to accept whatever they are feeling without judging it as wrong. Children also tend to grieve in little moments of time followed by acting like a regular kid again. For example, it’s completely normal and healthy for a child to cry at a funeral in the morning and then happily play in the backyard the rest of the day. This doesn’t mean the child didn’t love the deceased person or doesn’t miss him or her. It’s just the way kids grieve.
- Answer your child’s questions in an honest, age-appropriate manner. Be willing to answer “I don’t know” because when it comes to death, particularly unexpected death or the death of a younger person, there will be questions you don’t know the answer to, like “Why did this happen to him?”
- Explain to your child what will happen and what things will look like at a particular visitation, funeral, or celebration of life service, and then ask if s/he wants to participate. There is no “right” age at which children begin attending funerals. Sometime a five-year-old wants to go to a funeral while her 10-year-old sister doesn’t want to go. Your child will usually be the best judge of whether he or she can handle a visitation or funeral based on your description. It’s also okay to ask someone else to take care of your child during the service if you anticipate being highly distraught or if you just want the freedom to grieve without worrying how your child might be affected.
- The subject of death is likely to come up as time passes so be open to talking about what your child is thinking and feeling. Children use play to process through feelings so don’t be alarmed if you see your kids having funerals for their dolls or stuffed animals. If the person died in a car accident or was killed, you may also see them acting out similar scenarios with their toys. In general, this is not a cause for alarm unless your child begins hurting others or himself/herself.
- Share memories about the person who died. Sometimes parents avoid sharing memories because they are afraid it will cause their child pain; however, sharing stories actually help people grieve well and heal from their losses. Telling both sad and funny stories reminds kids that it’s okay to feel a wide range of emotions and that shared laughter is welcome in the midst of grief.
- Children are ego-centric so they tend to think they are to blame when something bad happens, even if to an adult mind, it is completely clear that the death had nothing to do with the child. So, it’s a good practice to check in with your children to make sure they understand they are not responsible for what happened. For example, you might say “sometimes when a parent dies, kids think things like ‘if I had obeyed Mommy more, then she wouldn’t have been in a car accident.’ But what happened wasn’t your fault. Do you ever wonder things like that?” This opens up a possible conversation where you can clear up any false guilt your child may be carrying.
- If your child asks questions like, “Am I going to die?” or “Are you or Daddy going to die?” an excellent response is “Everyone dies at some point, but you/Mommy/Daddy are not going to die for a long, long, long, long time.” Technically, we don’t know when any of us will die, but statistically speaking, you and your child are not likely to die any time soon. So just go with the “not for a very, very, very long time” answer.
- Take good care of yourself because you, as the parent, are grieving not only the loss of your loved one, but also grieving the loss of a part your child’s innocence if this is the first death your child has had to face. So lighten up your family’s schedule, get everyone (including yourself) to bed earlier, eat regular meals, and get some exercise outside instead of zoning out in front of a screen or snacking all day, or trying to maintain a packed schedule. Modeling good self-care for your children trains them to do the same when they will someday face losses of their own as adults.