Loss is everywhere. It feels like every other day I turn on the television I’m hearing about another mass shooting. We’ve almost become numb to the reality of violence in this world. But even though losses are happening around us all the time, it doesn’t mean they don’t impact us. And these losses impact our children as well.
In addition to these newsworthy mass killings, children are also impacted by the deaths and losses closer to home.
Young children need to grieve, just like adults. Children are often aware of death, but may not understand exactly what it means. Death and loss are portrayed often in movies (think Elsa and Anna’s parents, The Lion King, Finding Nemo), and talked about in school as a part of learning about the life cycle. And yet, death can be confusing for kids.
It’s natural to want to protect your child from death. Many adults think the best way to deal with death around children is not to talk about it. Avoid it and pretend it never happened, because kids don’t grieve, right? Wrong. Children grieve, just as adults do. It’s important to talk honestly about death with your children and to help them grieve.
As a parent or other person who loves a child, guiding children through grief can be frightening. You may feel a need to protect the child, make things better, and take away the hurt. But you can’t always do all of those things. You can be a guide and a healer, telling your child it’s okay to cry and letting them know that feeling sad is okay and also that it’s also okay to play and to be happy. You can let them know that you will be there to answer questions and that it’s okay to talk about what they are feeling.
So, how can I help my child grieve?
- Be respectful of your child and honor their grief. When someone close to you dies, your child will process his or her own feelings. Even if the child isn’t showing any signs of grieving, they are likely processing what happened.
- Use correct and appropriate language. Use words like, “he died”, “he isn’t coming back.” Avoid using phrases like “he passed away”, “he is sleeping”, “she lost the baby”, and “he is watching over you” as those words can be confusing and frightening for children. Here is one way you might explain what happened: “Sometimes, something makes someone’s body stop working. It’s not anyone’s fault. No one did anything wrong or forgot to do something. Doctors aren’t sure why it happens.”
Another way you might explain: “When people die, all their body parts stop working. They don’t feel or think anymore. They don’t hurt. They don’t breathe in or out. They don’t eat anymore and they don’t go to the bathroom. They are not sad or scared or happy. They are dead. Dead is not like sleeping. When you sleep, all of your body parts work. You dream and then you wake up in the morning. A dead person never wakes up. Everything that lives must die at some time. Leaves die in Autumn and fall from the trees. Animals live and then die. Usually people live a long, long time, but sometimes people get very sick and die very suddenly.”
- Understand where your child is developmentally. Kids between the ages of 3 and 5 likely don’t understand the concept of permanency. It’s difficult for kids this age to understand “forever”. Also, understand that each child will process grief differently. Some children will want to talk while others will process internally.
- Be available. Sit down with your child and answer any questions they have. As best you can, answer questions honestly and directly. It is normal for children to be curious and to ask questions repeatedly. It’s important to encourage, but not force, children to talk about their feelings. Some children may want to talk right away, and some children may have feelings that surface later.
- Understand the various symptoms of grief: denial, shock, anger, sadness, guilt, bargaining, pain, hope and acceptance. Know that children don’t often have words to express emotional pain, so they do so behaviorally. You may notice your child being more clingy, withdrawing, isolating, crying, regressing, acting out, having trouble sleeping, or pretending like nothing is wrong. You might also notice your child “playing death” or “funeral” with dolls. This is all normal. It’s important to give children the space to grieve and for you to be available if they have questions or want to talk.
- Be patient. Your child may seem distracted for some time. They may not be as productive at school or at home. They may not sleep quite as well as they sleep normally. They may act out or show some regression. These changes are temporary.
- Don’t ignore your own grief. It’s likely that you might be feeling something too. Children often imitate their parents, so this is your opportunity to model healthy grieving. It’s okay to cry in front of your children. You might also tell your children that you feel sad or angry about the loss. Talking about your own feelings gives your children permission to feel their feelings.
- Use art and stories. It’s often helpful for children to draw about their feelings. You may want to encourage your child to use art to express how they are feeling. There are also several great books and movies about death that are age-appropriate for children. (Examples: Charlotte’s Web, The Lion King, Finding Nemo, Frozen, Up, Land Before Time, The Dead Bird, The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, Lifetimes)
Children can also benefit from talking to a counselor. If you would like to learn more, or if you’d like to arrange counseling for your child or your family, call me at 402-595-8368.