Death is difficult for everyone, and that includes children. Whether your child has lost someone they know from their own life, or you’ve all lost someone close to your family, grief is a different process with children. Kids sometimes don’t grasp the concept of death in the same way adults do, which can lead to all kinds of conversations and reactions you may not have expected.
Grief is a set of stages, and there are many ways to go through that process in a healthy way so you can encourage growth in yourself and your family. It’s never too early to explore difficult topics in a sensitive, productive way. This way, your kids can learn and grow while they manage their feelings, just like you. Here’s how to do it:
1. Open a Dialogue
Talking about death together is one of the first steps in grieving, especially if this is your child’s first experience with death. It can be tempting to lie or hide death from kids to save them from pain, but the reality is that this person from their life is gone, and they’re not coming back. Hiding it isn’t going to do anyone much good. Instead, being open and explaining everything honestly but gently is ideal.
Share your own feelings and listen to them about theirs. Let your child do a lot of the talking if that’s what they need. Allow them to ask questions and gain an understanding. Most importantly, realize this will likely be an ongoing conversation that you return to as you both continue to process.
2. Understand Their Process
It’s almost a cliche at this point that everyone grieves in different ways, but it’s important to remember that this applies to kids, too. Your child is grieving the loss of a loved one, but they’re also likely processing their understanding of the broader concept of death. That’s bound to be a lot for anyone, especially someone with only a few years of life experience. Kids sometimes express their emotions in physical ways with behaviors like tantrums or fits, or they close themselves off.
When kids experience trauma or emotional upsets, it’s important to understand their emotional and mental state. This doesn’t mean you can’t parent and discipline them or teach them about productive emotional development, but understanding their motivations can help you approach each situation in a constructive, compassionate way.
3. Engage in Meaningful Traditions
Although ceremonies, religious services and funerals can be sad or difficult, they can serve as transitions and markers for closure. Leaving kids unaware of these events can often make death and grieving feel empty and abstract. Even if kids aren’t permitted at all of these events, making a point to remember the person who passed through positive memories can be beneficial for everyone involved, especially your child. Doing this can even bring a more positive connotation to these transitions.
Closure and markers of time are especially important for kids to understand that change is happening and life will be different after this chapter. These events can also let your child know it’s okay to be sad and support one another in times of difficulty, like the passing of a loved one. Engaging in these traditions can help them see everything a bit clearer and understand what death really means.
4. Provide Comfort
Of course, you always want to be there for your child, especially when they’re hurting or sad. Listening to them and being there for their needs can make a world of difference, which you can probably gather from past experience. You know your child better than anyone else, and you can use your connection and relationship with them to provide the comfort that would make the biggest impact on their emotional state.
Whether they prefer physical affection like cuddling or they’d rather talk it out, you can be there for them however they need. It’s essential that your child feels security during this time, as much of their world is probably being called into question. You can provide that security through unconditional love.
5. Take Care of Your Own Needs
One of the best ways to show care to others is by making sure you show up as your best self when they need you, and the only sustainable way to do that is by taking care of your own needs. Likely, a situation where your child is grieving will also mean that you are, too. It’s important to practice self-care to meet your physical and emotional needs.
It can be easy to get caught up in others’ needs — in fact, that’s a common coping mechanism. But you need to check in with yourself and care for your own needs so you can be the best parent and the best you.
Grief is never easy, no matter how old or young you are. But with your support and understanding, your child can process their emotions and learn through this experience alongside you.