Dealing with grief and loss as an adult is difficult enough, however it can be extremely distressing and confusing for a child, particularly one who has not experienced the death of a loved one or pet previously.
Depending on their age, personality, relationship to the deceased and previous experiences with death, each child will react differently. It is important to be patient and understanding as your child processes this difficult time.
While each child is different, there are some things that parents can do to assist their child’s grieving process:
1. Call it what it is
Psychologists stress that it is important to talk to children about death using simple, age-appropriate terms. Avoid euphemisms such as “passing on”, “at rest”, “lost” or “taken from us” as children can be very literal and may find if confusing when their loved one does not wake up or return. It may also increase their fear of the same thing happening to them.
There are many good books about death and grief written for children which may help you explain things.
2. Talk about it
It is important to verbalise emotions around death and let your child know that whatever they are feeling whether it be sadness, anger or fear – is perfectly normal and ok. They may also like to draw or write to express their feelings. While it may be difficult for you, share your own feelings so your child feels more comfortable expressing their emotions and knows you are grieving as well.
Also let them know that it is also ok to talk about the deceased person and to ask questions.
3. Provide comfort and connection
Your child may need a lot of reassurance that they are safe. Make sure they are surrounded by people who love and care for them, particularly if you are dealing with strong emotions of your own. Lots of physical touch such as cuddles and back rubs will help them feel connected to others. Depending on their age, you may also want to give them a new comfort item such as a teddy or a blanket to help them feel secure. Pets are also provide great companionship and reassurance during difficult times.
4. Funerals and memorials
Many parents worry about exposing their children to funerals, however this can be a good opportunity for your child to say goodbye to their loved one and understand the finality of death. Explain what will happen at the funeral beforehand and how your family’s beliefs and rituals will be incorporated. If they are old enough your child may wish to be involved in the proceedings in some way, such as doing a reading, laying flowers on the casket or choosing a song.
5. Reflect and reminisce together
Be sure to talk about the deceased person, sharing loving memories and looking at photos. Your child may also want to write a letter to the person or draw pictures of them. This is a healthy part of the healing process.
Be aware that your child may exhibit some out of character behaviours while they process their grief. They may also be reacting to the emotions of those around them. This is normal however, things such as ongoing sleep regression or disturbances, bedwetting, excessive worrying or emotional outbursts may require attention from a health professional if they persist.
Parenting expert Maggie Dent has a lot of great resources available to help parents navigate this tricky time. Not only is she an expert on kids, she also has previous experience in the funeral industry. You can start by watching her videos on Parent TV here and checking out her article Death Through The Eyes Of A Child.