Helping children cope with death is not exactly a typical “sweet nothing” topic I would address. However, it a cruel necessity. As parents or caregivers, we need to equip ourselves to handle such circumstances. Sadly, we can’t avoid the topic of death forever. Children will eventually experience the pain and sadness that goes along with grieving the loss of a loved one.
Topics like natural disasters, death and tragedies are difficult things for many adults to comprehend and cope with, but it can be even worse for a child. Before I go on, I want to make it clear that I am not a child psychologist or doctor. Just a concerned mama who has done some research on the best way to help kids cope with death and tragedy. I have provided links to my resources at the bottom of this post.
My family has known tragedy first hand. A few years ago we had four deaths in about a year and a half. Currently, our family is mourning the loss of my husband’s cousin to ovarian cancer. This has raised many questions from my daughters. This time the questions are different from the past because they are much older now and in a different level of understanding and maturity. The following bits of advice and info are derived from multiple sites and personal experiences pertaining to younger children dealing with tragedy and death.
Please take the time to read through the exerts I’ve included as well as exploring the resource links below.
As parents, it is far too easy to forget that our 5-year-old may not understand exactly what we are trying to communicate. Young kids are very literal. Their minds work in black and white. That’s why they are so blatantly honest at times. Because of this, an adult should choose their words wisely when communicating with a child.
According to ChildrenMinistry.com, kids 2 and under have very little understanding of death. Kids between 2 and 6 “display magical thinking”. For them, death seems reversible. My 6-year-old demonstrated this the other day. When talking about our loved one, she asked me why doctors haven’t just healed her yet. She just can’t understand why we can’t go to the local pharmacy, purchase medicine and make our loved one all better. Whereas kids ages 6-9 understand the finality of death.
- When researching this, one point that stuck out to me was to avoid euphemisms. For example, if a young child hears “We lost grandpa today”, they will probably spend hours hoping grandpa is found. Metaphors and euphemisms will just confuse kids, especially the young ones.
- Tell a child immediately when a loved one passes away. You don’t want to risk the child hearing of the death from others. The news should come from someone they trust and love.
- Give an honest explanation of what happened, all dependent upon their level of understanding.
- Tell your child that it’s ok to feel sad, nervous, anxious or to even cry. Those all natural feelings and part of grieving. You never want to push those feelings to the side (in you or your child).
- Explain what to expect at the funeral or wake.
- Never force them to kiss the deceased.
- Give lots of love, affection and security. Reassure that you’ll get through it all together.
- Do not shelter your children from a death. Many parents want to hide a death from their kids simply because they want to keep the pain away. But it’s important to remember that you can’t take the pain away from anyone, no matter how badly you want to.
Be A Role Model
Be emotionally honest and sincere about your grief. Even if we try to mask our emotional distress, kids can see right through it. It’s ok to tell them you are sad. We have told our daughters that when attending a funeral there will be family and friends crying and it’s ok to cry because that’s all part of grieving the loss of our loved one.
It’s important to have our own emotional health in order and as balanced as possible. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t mourn (see above paragraph). But if we don’t have our own emotional health in order, then we run the risk of being numb to our children’s pain or trying to block them from showing us their own emotions.
Remember, it’s ok to express your grief to your child in a calm and level-headed way. If mom and dad are calm, the child will typically mimic that behavior. However, if you express your feelings in a highly emotional way, then they will immediately absorb that frantic energy resulting in anxiety, nervousness and confusion.
I found with my kids that they did well coping through art. The girls were much younger when they experienced the deaths of loved ones (3 and 5). They drew many, many pictures of the grandparents and their father. I remember my oldest drew a picture for my grandmother and asked if I could mail it to heaven. I told her I couldn’t mail it, but that grandma would appreciate it none the less. We actually placed drawings in her casket so that grandma could take them with her to heaven. My daughter spent the entire time at the funeral home drawing and coloring her little heart out.
At each of the funerals our family had, my kids grabbed the little mints that were placed all throughout the funeral home and dropped them in the caskets. They wanted to make sure that the deceased had some food to snack on. And they LOVED doing this. I think they would have filled the caskets up if I let them.
I also bought helium balloons and had the kids release them whenever they felt sad about one of the deaths or on events like holidays and birthdays. The idea was we were sending the balloons to heaven for the deceased. They got a big kick out of this. I tried to make everything extra special; from shopping for the balloon, tying little notes to the strings and releasing them from a special place.
We also found much-needed emotional and spiritual support through church. It was a volatile time for me and the kids. If it wasn’t for our spirituality, we would have had an even harder time making it through so many tragedies in such a short amount of time.
It is also helpful to memorialize your loved one by setting out pictures, looking through photo albums and telling of fond memories or funny stories.
Since our family experienced multiple deaths in a short amount of time, my kids went through a rollercoaster of emotions. I found it so helpful, for the kids and myself, to get back into our routines. By getting the kids back in their dance and gymnastic routines helped us all move on from the grief and actually helped us cope with the situation. We were able to move together through the grieving and healing process.
It is my hope that the above information and my personal experiences may shed some light on a situation you or someone you know is going through. Please take some time to look through the links I’ve provided for additional support.