If you are suffering a loss in your family and have children who have not experienced the death of a loved one, you may wonder how to help them understand. Depending on their age and developmental stage, your approach can be different.
You Already Know How to Talk to Your Child
You may feel unqualified to talk about something as difficult as the death of a loved one with your child, but consider this:
- You know your child better than anyone: their emotional makeup, beliefs, fears, knowledge, ability to understand something.
- You have beliefs about death that you would like to explain to your child. They will make up their own mind about religion and tradition as they get older. It is ok to help them understand based on your beliefs for now.
- You understand what has happened and how you and your child both feel right now.
You are uniquely qualified to talk with your child about a death. Talking about death is like any other conversation you have with your child. Try to understand what they already know and fill in any gaps of knowledge to help them understand what is happening and how to cope.
We all have belief systems that we rely on to help us understand death and the reality of a person who is no longer living in their body. Use simple terms that your child can understand to explain what death is. For a 9 year old, this might mean something very different than for a 5 year old.
No matter how you choose to share a death with your child, the most important thing is to be there for them in their grief and communicate that however they express their grief, you understand and accept them.
When you talk with your child about a loss, it is important to help your child express whatever emotions the loss stirs up in them. This can be through tears, talking about the loss, playtime, coloring, or watching a show/ reading a book that helps them understand and express their pain. Some children are rather matter of fact about death while others can experience the loss as intensely threatening or overwhelmingly sad.
Let your child know that you are there for them through however they feel. There may be many confusing emotions struggling for a chance to express themselves. With an older child, you might listen and ask questions so that the emotions can surface. Let them know that their feelings are heard and understood.
With a young child, try role-playing on roblox or with dolls or other toys that may help them express difficult feelings that they don’t know how to talk about yet. Your attention and acceptance make the difference here as the child processes the pain of losing a loved one.
Many kids may show their emotions easily and openly. They may cry or play with their toys in ways that express their pain and confusion.
Other children may have bodily function disruptions because they don’t know how to express the sadness of such a deep loss. These children may revert to bed wetting or thumb sucking, chewing on a blanket, or suffer from headaches or stomach aches for a while.
Others will just need some extra cuddles and crayons so that they can draw and interpret the colors of their new reality.
Use Emotional Words
You can help a child to understand emotional words by talking about your own grief journey in easily understood words.
- “I feel sad today because I miss Grandma”
- “I keep thinking about what happened and it hurts my heart to know that your Grandma won’t be walking back in that door today.”
- “I’m feeling sad today. I never expected for your sister to pass away. I don’t understand why this happened and my tears are because I miss her so much.”
Then remember to reassure yourself and your child of what is true and still good in your lives.
- “I know Grandma is in a better place.”
- “I know your sister is not in pain anymore and that is a good thing, even though it is hard for us to let her go.”
- “I know your Daddy didn’t plan to leave us so soon. I love to remember how much he loved us. I know he still does love us even though he is not here for us to see right now.”
The Nature of the Relationship
The nature of the relationship of the deceased with the child is also a factor when someone has passed away. It will likely be more difficult for the child to hear if they were close with the deceased, such as a beloved grandmother who has always been there helping care for your child.
If the child has lost a parent or sibling, sit down with your child and calmly and clearly explain the death. Talking about your knowledge and experiences about death can reassure your child that death is a normal and expected part of life even though it is also a difficult journey through painful emotions.
Your Grief Journey
Your emotional disposition has much to do with helping your child stay calm and process their emotions.
Children look to adults to know what death is about and how to handle the strong emotions that come with this new experience. If you can normalize the death for your child, it can help them understand that life is a cycle that we all go through and that some of us leave this world sooner than others.
Let your child see that it is a difficult emotional journey for you also, but that you will walk it together with your child. Explain that it is hard but that someday, you will both live with the news of the death without as much pain.
Unexpected and Sudden Loss
If the loss is unexpected and sudden, this too can play a part in the overwhelming nature of finding out that a loved one has passed. A car accident or sudden stroke causing the death of someone young and healthy is hard to hear for anyone.
There is an expectation, even by young children that young people do not die.
After finding out about the news yourself, take time to compose yourself and calm the shock. Talk to a close friend or family member, religious worker, hospital chaplain, or grief counselor. Local funeral homes can often direct you to a source of help. Once you have processed enough to stay calm, talk to your child about what death is.
Experience with Death
Consider whether your child has experienced death before. If there was a pet who died and your child was a witness to the process, you can lead with a discussion of what you previously talked about with your child concerning death.
For a child who is not experienced with death, talk about how the loved one who died is no longer in that body. For a younger child, you could read about how caterpillars turn into butterflies and how they no longer need their old caterpillar body when they fly away.
Make sure to let your child know that it is ok to cry and that they are not alone in the pain of missing their loved one. Let them see that you also experience missing a loved one as hard, but you will get through this together.
If you are unsure how to talk with your child, get in touch with Renaissance Funeral Home. We have experience talking with families and children about death and would be honored to help you find the right words to help your child understand.