Losing a loved one is a heartbreaking experience at any age.
And watching our children go through the process can make the experience even more devastating.
It’s a parent’s natural urge to want to shield their children from pain and sadness.
But this isn’t realistic — not during childhood, and not during adulthood.
Loss and sadness are inevitable parts of life, but teaching your children positive and productive coping mechanisms will help them through the process in the short and long term.
So how do we deal with a grieving child?
The most important thing is to allow them to grieve.
Although we might desperately want to take their sadness away — we can only distract them from it.
And this will just prolong or confuse the process of grieving.
So talking openly and honestly with them is key.
How you go about doing this will depend on their age — and age-appropriate responses are always going to be necessary.
If your child is too young to understand the concept of death, work on concepts that they do understand and that reflect the reality of the situation.
For example, focus on the fact that the lost loved one will no longer be around, they won’t be seeing them anymore, and this is sad but also a normal part of life.
Using aids like toys, books, drawings, or plants to explain the cycle of life can be helpful.
Don’t use euphemisms to soften the reality of the situation — use concrete terms that your kids will know to explain what has happened.
Doing otherwise may just confuse them and give them unrealistic ideas about loss.
Take cues from your child — don’t offer up any information that you feel they don’t need to know, or that may be beyond their comprehension.
But be ready to answer their questions as honestly as you can, in terms they will understand.
Let them know how and why this has happened — again, in age-appropriate terms — and reassure them that they don’t need to fear that it will happen suddenly to you or other loved ones.
Children experiencing a death can sometimes become fearful of death.
The more open and clear you are with them from the beginning, the less likely they are to hold onto this fear.
Be aware of how your child’s grief may manifest itself.
Everyone grieves differently, and there is no ‘normal’.
Some children may cry one minute and then be playing and laughing the next.
Some will act out of their feelings, rather than expressing them verbally.
Some will exhibit changes in their sleeping, eating or behaviour patterns.
Some will revert to younger behaviours, like bed wetting or thumb sucking.
None of these behaviours should alarm or concern you.
But, after a decent amount of time has passed, and your child’s grief seems to be getting in the way of their daily functioning (at school, at home or otherwise), you may want to consider getting some professional grief counselling from a psychologist.
It’s also very important to consider yourself in this equation…
If you are struggling with your grief too much to be able to communicate clearly and productively with your child — let another adult take over to explain things to them.
Importantly, do not pretend that you are not sad.
But do let them know that this is a normal, natural response to this situation, and that you will be okay.
Hiding your emotions will confuse their own response, and may cause them to worry about you too — and they have enough on their plate!
So, in summary, when dealing with your child’s grief:
- Allow your children to be sad, to express their sadness, and to see your sadness.
- Let them know it is normal, and a part of life.
- Explain the situation to them in clear terms that they can understand.
- Be prepared for their questions, and for their grief to manifest itself in different ways.
- Understand that they may grieve the loss again in later years of their life, and that this too is normal.
- And if their grief is getting in the way of their daily functioning, seek professional help.
We may not be able to take away our children’s pain, but through these methods we can help them to understand it, and to cope with it.