By Alex Robbins
How children handle the loss of a loved one depends on the child’s age and her relationship with the deceased individual. The support she receives also plays a big part in how she handles the loss. Losing a loved one can have a significant impact on children, and they need an adult’s guidance. If you’re an adult helping a child deal with the grief of losing a loved one, there are things you can do to help her understand what’s happening and find a way to move forward.
Talking with the Child
When telling a child that someone she loved has passed, be sure to use simple, clear words and to present yourself in a caring manner. For example, you might say, “I have some sad news to tell you. Grandma died today.” Give the child time to absorb what you have just told her. You’ll then need to listen and provide comfort. There’s not a correct reaction for the news; some children cry, others ask a lot of questions, and some seem apathetic. Regardless of the child’s reaction, stay with her for a while to offer hugs or reassurance, to answer questions, or just to ensure she’s not alone.
Some children may feel responsible for the illness or death of a loved one, especially the death of a parent or another individual with whom they had a close relationship. It’s crucial that you help the child understand that the death is in no way her fault. Reassure the child of this even if she doesn’t voice those feelings. “It’s easy for them to flash to an angry memory where they shouted an angry thought or ‘wish,’ and come to the conclusion that they have actually caused the condition,” says Neptune Society.
Responding to the Child’s Reaction
Encourage the child to express what she’s thinking and how she’s feeling in the days, weeks, and months following the loss. Sometimes, when trusted adults discuss how they’re feeling with children, it can help children feel comfortable with sharing their own feelings. Say something such as, “You may be feeling sad. I’m sad too. We both loved Grandpa very much, and he loved us a lot too.”
Respond to the child’s emotions by being comforting and reassuring. Tell the child that feeling better after a loved one dies takes time; it’s a process that gets better as time passes. Be mindful of the child’s behaviors and feelings. Some children can have issues with concentrating, sleeping, anxiety, or sadness. Many children who need additional support or who have issues with grief find relief from support groups and counseling.
Helping children remember their loved one can help them deal with their feelings and move forward. “In the days and weeks ahead, encourage your child to color, draw pictures, or write down favorite stories of their loved one,” suggests Nemours. While some adults think it’s best to avoid bringing up the person who died, remembering the person and sharing happy memories actually helps the grieving individual.
Preparing the Child for Changes
Children often fear the unexpected, so help the child be prepared for what lies ahead. If the death of a loved one will change the routine of the child’s life, explain what will now happen to reassure the child. For example, you may say, “Mommy will pick you up after school like Grandpa used to.” Or you might say, “I will be staying with Grandma for a few days, so you’ll spend extra time with Daddy, but you can call me whenever you’d like.”
Allow children to join in rituals like viewings, funerals, or memorial services, but don’t force them to do so. Tell the child ahead of time what will happen, such as singing, praying, conversations, crying, and hugging. Explain what happens after the service as a way to show that people will feel better, such as everyone meeting for a meal. Also explain burial or cremation and the family’s beliefs about what happens after death.
Everyone needs time to heal after a loss, including children, as grief is a process that happens over time, and there’s not a set time frame. Everyone also needs a support system during periods of grief, and that’s especially true for children. Throughout the process, continue to have conversations to see how the child is feeling. Tell the child that healing doesn’t mean she’s forgetting about her loved one. Healing means allowing good feelings and memories of the loved one to support her as she finds new ways to enjoy life.
Alex Robbins is a father of 3 who enjoys researching and writing about home safety tips, advice, and life hacks.