Let’s just get it out there: nobody really wants to talk to kids about death. Death is a part of life none of us really want to deal with, and helping children deal with grief can be really difficult, as a parent. So, how does a help when your child has suffered a loss?
First, deal with your own grief and sadness. Remember, we are the models for kids. How we deal with death and grief is how they will deal with it. We must determine how we feel about death and dying, preferably before we have to help children deal with it. Talking to kids about death is important, but we can't do it until we have had a conversation with ourselves.
Questions to ask yourself about death and grief:
- What do I feel about my own mortality?
- How did I handle my last bout with grief and sadness?
- What do I believe about the afterlife? What do I want to teach kids to believe? What do my employers believe, and how can I support them in dealing with grief and sadness?
- What do I want to tell the children about remembering the (person or pet) we need to say goodbye to?
- Could I benefit from group or individual grief counseling?
I suggest that, as you think and talk about these questions with your loved ones, you keep a journal. Doing so will allow you to revisit your decisions and not have to rely on your memory. Organize everything you think of as associated with grief in one spot, so it is easy to grab and use. Once this is done, you will be more relaxed and less stressed, should something inevitable happen.
Now that you have thought about your position on death and grief, you are better prepared to help the children.
General Tips for Helping Kids after a Death
There are several things you can do to support children during times of grief and sadness.
- Communicate. Talk about your feelings and theirs, read books for kids about death, grief and sadness together. Give the children words they can use to discuss their feelings.
- Be physically affectionate. On purpose, give more hugs, and let children be close while reading, watching TV or movies, or playing games.
- Be active. Provide a variety of activities for children to get involved in. Children need physical and mental distraction, and trying new activities in addition to their favorites may help them to move on.
- Pay attention. Pay close attention to how the child seems to be processing through their feelings of grief.
- Consider grief counseling. Discuss any plans for children to attend a children’s grief support group. Grief counseling is vital if the child experiences the loss of a parent.
One important thing to keep in mind when n children experience a death is that children are naturally egocentric, which means that - right or wrong - they believe they are linked to everything that happens. It is a safe bet the child somehow blames himself or herself for the death. For example, a child may think: "I did not finish my vegetables and that is why my dog, Scooter, died."
When talking to kids about death, emphasize that death is part of life and that no one is to blame, but that the child especially is not at fault.
How you handle your approach to death and grief will largely depend on the age of the children. If a child's grieving behaviors last for more than three months, it is time to speak with the child's pediatrician about intensive specialists for children's grief counseling.
Talking to Kids about Death: Birth to Age Three
Many people make the mistake of thinking of children and grief as incompatible at this age; people believe that infants and toddlers do not have emotions like the adults. This is not true. Babies can and do feel grief and sadness, especially if the loss is of a parent or caregiver. Infants and young children who are sad, stressed and showing signs of grief may begin to:
- Show signs of lethargy
- Complain of frequent tummy aches
- Become cranky and clingy
- Take a developmental step backwards, such as a potty trained child having more accidents, or a child's talk reverting to babble or baby talk.
Are You Sad, Little Bear?: A Book About Learning to Say Goodbye by Rachel Rivett
What Happens When We Die? by Carolyn Nystrom
These two books about children and grief can help to give you the words to use to talk to kids about death, as well as the basic concepts to help advance the child's understanding of death.
Talking to Kids about Death: Ages Three to Five
Children of this age tend to exhibit their grief in a variety of ways, especially depending on the child's maturity. Do not assume the child will grieve by being sad - instead, remember that the stages of grief include anger, denial, and bargaining.
Children of this age may rebel, use their imagination in new ways and to the extreme, or attempt to make "deals" more than before. Responsibilities for adults may be less about talking to preschool-aged kids about death, and more about listening to them.
Kids of this age experiencing grief tend to:
- Be crankier than before the loss
- Cry more easily than before the loss
- Seek out more comfort than before the loss
- Revert to a previous developmental stage
- Display some personality change. Usually a shy, quiet child becomes loud and belligerent, or an animated child becomes more reserved.
Always and Forever by Alan Durant.
The Purple Balloon by Chris Raschka
These books are age-appropriate to help children actively discuss their grief, while showing them that other people experience death and have empathy for their feelings.
Talking to Kids about Death: School Age (Kindergarten-5th Grade)
Children this age are still egocentric and can blame themselves for illness, tragedy, or death. However, the older a child gets, the better he or she understands the differences between cause and effect. Grief counseling can be especially important for social adjustment during school years. School-age children want to do succeed, get along with peers, and do activities they enjoy. Parenting school aged children while they deal with a loss will definitely include supporting them through any social adjustments.
Sadness and grief in children of this age often show as:
- Lethargy or lack of interest in activities
- Feeling sick often
- Crying easily and often
- Lack of interest in being with peers
- Wanting to stay home from school
- Waning grades
Rudi’s Pond, Charlotte’s Web and The Secret Garden are all books which explore the way children and families deal with sadness, grief, fear, and loss.
Explore Grief Counseling Options
Don't underestimate the value of sharing and expressing grief with others. If you feel your child is struggling with overwhelming grief, do everything you can to support their recovery. A licensed grief counselor is often the child's best resource if all other options are exhausted.
Dealing with grief is a part of life which is difficult for us all. Do not hide your grief, sadness, confusion, anger, or other emotions surrounding death. Share these with your children, while modeling healthy ways to handle tough times. Talking to kids about death is important, and showing them compassion for their loss teaches them important skills they need for their emotional maturity.
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