Perhaps one of the hardest things a parent ever has to go through is helping their child cope with the death of a loved one. I think part of the reason we find it difficult to explain death to our kids is that we want to shield them from the harsh realities of life as much as possible.
Death isn’t something we normally talk about and when it comes to kids, we don’t know whether to hide or embrace the grief and sense of loss it brings. We don’t know what to say or how to explain it to them and sometimes we are too caught up in our own grief to realize that children also grieve.
Children and Grief
Unlike adults who go through the typical stages of grief, kids tend to exhibit loss very differently.
Kids and young adults are still learning to manage their emotions and they lack the experience and coping skills of adults. Their reactions to death vary widely and are mostly influenced by factors such as personality, age, their developmental stage, previous experience with loss or death etc.
Some children become withdrawn and unresponsive, some become angry and act out while others might become anxious or fretful. Many others don’t appear to react to the loss only for it to show up in other ways. So it’s erroneous to assume that a kid isn’t grieving just because they show no signs of it.
How to Help Your Child Cope with Loss
The following are some tips for helping your child cope with loss:
Be direct and honest
When explaining death to your child, be as direct and honest as possible. There are ways to tailor your conversation to their developmental level so you could avoid further confusion.
Unless your kids are in their teens, avoid using phrases like “moved on” or “passed away” as these might confuse them. Instead, use real words such as “died” and be as clear as possible. You might include the fact that it’s a normal part of life and the person is never coming back. You can use age-appropriate books, videos or stories to help pass the message.
Encourage your kids to ask as many questions as they’d like and give them honest answers when they do.
Reassure them that it’s not their fault or has nothing to do with them
Younger kids might harbor guilt thinking that perhaps they were “bad” or somehow responsible for their loved one’s death so make sure they understand that they’re not to blame in any way.
Encourage your child to express his or her feelings
Encourage your child to express their feelings and assure them that it’s normal to feel angry, sad, helpless, etc. while grieving. While it can be tempting to hide your emotions and put up a strong front, it’s better to let your kids see your grief, as long as you don’t overwhelm them. This way, they’ll see that whatever they’re going through is normal.
Help reduce anxiety about the future
Kids who’ve lost a parent often end up worrying about the future and might be anxious that you too might die. Allay their worries as best as you can and offer reassurance that they’ll be well cared for should anything happen.
Find someone to confide in
Due to their longing for independence, teens might find it hard to accept help or show emotions after bereavement. If you find it hard to communicate with your teen, find someone outside the family that they can confide in e.g. a teacher or counselor.
Bereaved children and teenagers require ongoing reassurance, attention, and support and sometimes you can’t do it all by yourself. In such situations, it’s ok to look for help from your friends and extended family. Also, don’t hesitate to contact a child psychologist or other mental health professional if you’re concerned about your child’s behavior in the wake of tragedy and loss