We may be afraid to discuss loss and grief with kids but it is important we do. Here are some expert tips on how.
When my Dad died, I was terrified to let my six-year-old attend the funeral for fear it would traumatize him. And I was so overwhelmed with my own grief I didn’t want to expose him to my pain. But keeping him from the burial denied him a sense of completion with his grandad. A few years later, when his first pet fishes passed away, I was sure to have a funeral for him to take part of, knowing that pet loss is as sad as people loss for kids. But a death in the family, or even a public hero, can be difficult for all involved.
Trying to get your child through the experience of death or loss may seem overwhelming yet kids are far more resilient than we may realize. Whether it is a beloved human or an adored pet, experts we interviewed agree that kids need honesty, and a chance to grieve.
“A lot of parents feel that they need to protect their children from death — this isn’t true,” says Christina Steinorth-Powell, MA, MFT, author of Cue Cards for Life.
However, we do have to listen, and get a sense of their current understanding so we can tailor the approach to their needs. “Every child is uniquely different and every situation about death is unique,” says psychologist Daria M. Brezinski, who has helped clients with death and loss for over 35 years. “The only reliable method of assisting children is to listen to how much interest they have, how much knowledge, how much they really want to know instead of imposing our adult attitudes, beliefs and justifications onto them.”
Here are some tips from the experts to help talk with your children about death and loss:
Lying can hurt your child. Explain as clearly as possible that there has been a death and the loved on is not coming back. Brezinski’s family experienced a terrible loss when her 3-year-old brother died. She was only 8-years-old. “People said to me ‘ he’s just sleeping’,” she recalls. “For years, I had difficulty falling asleep because I thought I would never wake up. In addition, my parents were overwhelmed with their own grief to explain it to me.”
Find out what they know. “First ask the child what he or she thinks about death, and what happens after death, if anything,” says Kristine A. Kevorkian, PhD, MSW, an expert in grief, death and dying (not related to Dr. Jack Kevorkian). Depending on the maturity of the child, they may not want or need a big explanation. They may prefer you to gloss over things, she says.
Honor reactions and questions. A young child may become visibly upset or may just want to go and play after hearing hews of a death — and that’s okay. “Parents and adults must also be aware that children may have no reaction that is visible,” says Stacy Haynes, EdD, LPC, ACS. “You may need to ask questions to help their child process death and dying. Be open and allow children to ask questions about what is taking place.” Younger children, especially, may have a many practical questions, and questions may come up for months following a loss.
Don’t try to delay or prevent a child’s grief. Allow their real emotions to surface. “It is incredibly hard to watch your child grieve, but they need to learn how to do it,” says Jen Hancock, author of The Humanist Approach to Grief and Grieving. “If you cheat them out of the experience of grief by diverting grief, or replacing grief with another emotion, you don’t help them learn how to deal with it at all. They can handle grief if you allow them to.”
It’s okay if mom cries. Don’t be afraid to show your grief. “When parents try to put on a ‘brave face,’ it often leads children to feel confused,” says Steinorth-Powell. “Children will feel sad and will probably want to cry and grieve. If you, as a parent, don’t role model natural behavior, your children will think it’s not okay to grieve.” When mom talks about her own sadness, it shows children to never fear or repress their emotions.
Prepare them for the funeral. No child is too young to attend a funeral, as long as they are lovingly guided and prepared for what they will see in the funeral home and the cemetery, says Bereavement expert, Marty Tousley, CNS-BC, FT, DCC. “Shutting children out makes them feel alone, and conveys the idea that death and grief are too horrible to be faced,” she says. However, if a child strongly objects to attending a funeral, do not force it.
When a pet dies. Loss of a beloved pet is like any death in the family. It is healthy to have a pet funeral or memorial because rituals help children to express emotions. Another idea is to have them make a collage or box full of things they remember about the pet (or person) they lost. “Interactive projects like these give parents lots of opportunity to sit with their children and let them talk about feelings related to the death of a loved one,” says Steinorth-Powell. “Talking is always helpful in processing emotions.”
Include spiritual beliefs. Many families find relying on their faith helps. “We are a religious family, so I also explain that they are in heaven with God, and that one day we’ll see them again,”says mom Leslie Buttonow. Spirituality can help in times of loss, and bring peace to those who grieve. Just be sure to balance it with the kinds of practical information that helps children accept the loss.
For more resources, contact The National Alliance of Grieving Children.