Understanding and coping with death is never easy for anyone, but it’s especially hard for children. Taking something so deep and raw and putting that into a concept that a child can wrap herself around is perplexing.
Earlier in November, we had to have that conversation not once, but two times with our 4-year-old. This was the first time she ever experienced a sense of loss. There were a lot of confusing looks, sad eyes, and “Whys?”
While she knew about the idea of death (she’s sat through countless Disney movies where it happened), experiencing it first-hand is a totally different experience and very confusing to process.
You want nothing more than a parent to protect them from hurt and sadness, but the best thing you can do is help them cope with grief. I recommend this book if you need the words and illustrations to walk through these difficult conversations of death and loss.
Here are my 5 tips for helping children cope with death:
1.Know that everyone grieves differently.
One minute they’re crying; then, they’re playing. Then they may be withdrawn or even regress developmentally. Everyone, but especially young kids, processes grief differently. It doesn’t mean they’re less sad because they don’t show it. Let them express their grief how they need to, and explain that feeling sad or anxious is normal.
2. Remain composed and in control of your emotions.
It’s 100% ok to cry and be visibly upset in front of your child. It reassures that these feelings are ok. However, reacting in an uncontrolled manner shows kids unhealthy ways to deal with the pain of loss.
3. Be direct and answer as many questions as your child will ask.
This will be dependent on the age and maturity of your child. Some kids ask 1,000 detailed questions and some only ask “why”. Be as open as you feel appropriate and don’t use euphemisms like “grandpa is sleeping”, as those kinds of answers are confusing and leave them with even more questions and uncertainty.
4. Attend a celebration of life or funeral.
This, of course, is dependent on the maturity and age of the child as there are a lot of intense emotions during that time. These kinds of events give the closure that the child may need to say goodbye and understand that death is permanent. Be sure to prepare your child for manners and what happens during these events.
5. Talk about what happens after death.
Whether you’re religious or not, the afterlife, or the idea of it, can be very comforting. Even explaining that loved ones stay in our hearts and memories forever is a nice gesture of comfort. It helps offer hope that the person or pet is at peace.
Know that it takes time for everyone to go through the mourning process and that it’s unique for everyone. If your child seems unable to cope or just isn’t dealing with the news well, adjustment disorder may be the reason. Adjustment disorder is a stress-related condition that some children develop after experiencing a traumatizing event. Check with your child’s doctor if your child seems to be withdrawn, angry or isn’t recovering from grief in a healthy way.
How do you help your child(ren) cope with death?
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