Losing a family member is hard at any age; however, children often lack the life experience that adults rely on for developing the coping skills to get them through this difficult time. When a child loses a loved one, he can experience a variety of emotions that may range from confusion to anger. Children who lose a loved one after a prolonged illness may even feel guilty about having a sense of relief. Throughout the grieving process, children will frequently turn to the adults around them to seek answers regarding how to cope with losing their loved one. Whether you are a parent, teacher or caregiver, here is what you need to know about helping kids deal with the death of a family member.
Have an Honest Discussion
Breaking the news of a loss to a child is one of the most challenging conversations that parents can have. However, this initial conversation is what will pave the way for a child’s reaction. To initiate the discussion regarding a loss, plan for a time when you can sit down and talk to your child uninterrupted. Allow your child to react however he may need to without expressing judgment. After hearing about the death of a loved one, children may react with anger, fear or confusion. Very young children may even deny that the death has occurred. Finish up your first discussion by letting your child know that you are available to answer any questions that may arise later or just to offer a hug.
Use Concrete Language
During every discussion with your child, it is important to avoid using one of the many euphemisms people have for death (e.g., “passed away”). This is especially true for young children, who may take it literally if you say that their loved one is “resting.” If your child has questions about how the death occurred, be honest, but be sure to use language that is geared toward your child’s age and development.
Recognize the Signs of Grief
Understanding the different signs of grief will enable you to help your child through the grieving process. It is important to note that children will react differently depending upon their age and stage of development. For example, older children may feel guilty that they did not do something to prevent the death. This can occur even when there was nothing they could do to help their loved one. According to Mental Health America, young children may also revert to outgrown behaviors, such as sucking their thumb or wetting the bed. While many of these reactions are normal, it is important to keep a watchful eye for signs that grieving is becoming severe.
Coping With Prolonged Grief
Because of the wide range of emotions children can experience during the grieving process, it can be hard to know if a child is experiencing deeper trauma. However, Dr. Bruce Perry offers a few things parents should look for regarding severe grief reactions. For example, Perry explains that severe grief reactions may be unnaturally prolonged if they are still occurring six months after the death. Although children may still feel occasional bouts of sadness, they should be on their way to handling their emotions in a positive manner at this point. Any child who has grief symptoms that are prolonged or that interfere with his daily functioning may benefit from talking to a professional mental health counselor who is experienced in working with grieving children.
Be Available for Questions
As a child begins to accept the loss, she may still come to you with frequent questions. If you are also experiencing profound feelings of grief, it may be hard to talk about the loss, but your child depends upon you for support. Therefore, try not to avoid bringing up the death, and encourage your child to talk about it any time she feels sad. If you recognize feelings of guilt in your child, it is important to reinforce the concept that death cannot be prevented and that moving on with life does not mean that the loved one’s death did not matter. Death can be scary for children, so don’t shy them away from asking questions or expressing their fears. Help them see that death, while sad, is a part of life.
Surround Your Child with Support
When a child is learning how to deal with the death of a family member, he can benefit from having many different resources for finding ways to cope with grief. Let your child know that other family members are available to help him through this time. School counselors, teachers and other familiar adults will also be willing to provide support to your child once they are aware of the family member’s death. There are also support groups available where your child can meet other children who are also struggling with the loss of a loved one.
Helping your kids deal with the death of a family member begins the moment you have the initial conversation. By talking to your child openly and honestly, you will be paving the way toward better coping skills that will help your child throughout the grieving process. As your child begins to accept the loss, be sure to set up a memorial ritual that you can use to remember your loved one while providing your child with a healthy outlet for his grief. The goal isn’t to extinguish those feelings of sadness, but to help your child learn to understand them and incorporate them into a healthy view of life.