How can we help our children deal with deaths of loved ones? Here are some ways.
- Prepare the children for what will come. The more open you can be about what is ahead, the less uncomfortable your children will be. Explain what the funeral will be like, what they will see and what feelings they may experience. I tell children and adults alike that we hurt so much because we love so much.
- Encourage your child to ask questions and answer them clearly and accurately. Tell them, “Anytime you have a question or don’t understand what is happening, please ask me. I will tell you anything you want to know.” Children have a great need to talk about what has happened, but they will only do so when the environment and time is right and they are ready.
- Spend one on one time with each child. Sit on the floor or ground so that you are on their level. Play with them, or color with them. Then, when the timing is right, ask questions about their feelings, memories and understanding. Have you had any dreams about ______? Do you feel sad some of the time? Would you tell me what you’ve been feeling? Could we draw a picture of _______? You will probably be amazed how easily the conversation flows when your child knows you are available and want to be a part of their feelings.
- Don’t over spiritualize the death with comments like, “Grandma is in heaven now.” “Jesus came to take your sister to heaven.” “God is in control.” “God just needed another angel in heaven.” Be careful about using references to God or Jesus when explaining death to a child. They may believe that death is God’s fault and develop a sense of anger toward God.
- Don’t put timetables on the emotional reactions. Grief work is individual and truly unending. We will never be “over it” or “our old selves again.” Expect life to be different following the death of a loved one. Once our life has been touched by tragedy, we will never be the same again.
- Share your own feelings of loss with your child. Let your child know that you are sad, you miss the loved one, you think about him or her often. It is okay for your child to see you cry. That lets them know that it is all right for them to cry as well.
- Don’t minimize your child’s feelings with comments like, “You’re a big girl, you can handle this.” ” You don’t need to feel that way.” “Boys need to be strong.” Instead, validate their feelings by saying, “This is a very sad time for you.” “I know this is very difficult.” Or “I love you and will be here for you.”? Comments like these let your child know that you are aware of their pain and it’s okay for them to feel that way.
- After a death, children need to be reassured of your love and your presence. They may feel abandoned or think the death was somehow his or her fault. Reassure children that the death isn’t their fault. Say “I love you,” often and provide as stable an environment as possible.
- When it comes to feelings, don’t use the words should or shouldn’t. Such as, “You shouldn’t feel that way” or “You should be doing better by now.” That indicates that there is a right or a wrong way to feel. Feelings aren’t right or wrong. They just are. The more open you are to their feelings, the more willing they will be to share them.
- Children feel that adults are at the funeral services for the other adults. Kids have a need to grieve too. When it is age appropriate, I encourage children to attend the funeral. My son had a friend in kindergarten who was killed in a tragic accident. Almost the entire class went to the funeral. They couldn’t fully grasp the magnitude of his death, but they knew it was very sad and they would not see Chris again. It was so touching to see, child after child, pass the coffin and leave a small toy “for Chris.” Children shouldn’t be isolated from their friends and childhood activities during the period of mourning.
- A question children often ask is, “Is ________ still in our family?” We want to assure them they are a part of our family and always will be. I love what Maria Shriver wrote about her grandmother in What’s Heaven? “Everything she ever taught me is alive in me. She taught me that it is really important to love my family, to treat others with respect, and to be able to laugh a lot. Most important, she taught me to believe in myself.” (What’s Heaven? by Maria Shriver, New York, Golden Books, 1999) Our loved one does live on in us if we remember what they taught us, and meant to us. Encourage your child to keep their loved one alive by remembering what she taught, how she lived, and letting it show in their life.
- Keep an open dialogue with your children about the loved one and the feelings connected to the loss. You don’t ever want your children to think that talking about the loved one will hurt you too much, that it is better left alone, or that time marches on.
Lauren Littauer Briggs is the author of The Art of Helping: What to Say and Do When Someone is Hurting. is available to speak at women’s luncheons, meetings, seminars and conferences. For additional information please visit www.laurenbriggs.com. Lauren may be reached at email@example.com.Tags: grief, hope