The loss of a loved one is difficult at any age. You may be dealing with your own grief and worrying about your child’s well-being after a death. How do you talk to a child about death and dying? How much do they understand about what’s going on? What is considered healthy grieving for kids? Children definitely feel grief, and here are a few ways to help them navigate those emotions.
Listen and answer.
Most likely your child will have many questions about what happened and what’s going to happen now. It may be tempting to dismiss those questions in order to protect the child, but it is important that children feel validated about their curiosity and that they get honest answers. Be straightforward with them, use words like “dead” or “killed” instead of vague allusions to “passing on” of “loss.” Listen to your child’s questions and ask them some in return, making sure to focus on open-ended questions like, “How does that make you feel,” and “What do you understand about what’s going on?” Listening to a child’s concerns will help you ascertain their understanding and their emotions regarding their loss.
Talk about the deceased.
It’s important for a grieving child to be able to talk about the deceased, and to hear you talk about them as well. Mention them in casual conversation, like “Your mom loved that shirt on you,” or “This was your dad’s favorite movie.” If children feel like talking about the dead is “taboo” they will not be able to express their feelings when they need to. It can be comforting for a child to remember positive things about the deceased and to feel like they “live on” in the memories of those who loved them. Talk to your children in “kid-friendly” language about the changes they are seeing in their life without the deceased. For an age-by-age guide on how to talk to your child, check out this article from Parents Magazine.
Hold a memorial service or funeral.
Children need an opportunity to say goodbye to their loved one. They need the finality of a service and the support that a gathering shows. An article by the Doughy Center states, “A service enables children and teens to see how valued and important the person was to others and know that grieving the loss is okay. Before the service, let children know what is going to happen, who will be there, where and when it takes place and why it’s important. Children who are prepared with this information are able to make the choice about attending the funeral.” Read the rest here. You should also consider allowing children to contribute to the service—have them choose some music or flowers or perhaps what their loved one wears. Your child will appreciate the trust being placed in them and will feel involved in the mourning of the deceased.