Death is a very difficult subject for all of us.
We commonly don’t know how to deal with our feelings, we often respond in unexpected ways and ultimately, we struggle to make sense of it.
And it is even more difficult to help your kids cope with death, particularly the loss of a loved one.
It’s very important to be clear when you talk with your children about the death of a loved one.
Young children in particular may be confused if you use euphemisms like ‘he passed away’, ‘she is asleep’, ‘he is no longer with us’ – and may become scared of sleeping or someone going away.
Use the words ‘death’ and ‘died’ to describe this unique event.
This may be uncomfortable since death is still a taboo subject for some people, but you are helping your kids greatly if you are honest with them, and with yourself. You will also help them to understand the world, and life in general. Death is part of it.
Under no circumstances lie to your children about the fact that someone has died.
The damage is much greater if they find out (and they will!) and realize that you lied about it. Children can invent very frightening reasons for being excluded from such an important truth and it will impact your relationship, possibly forever.
Very young children don’t understand the concept of death, the fact that it is final, and that it happens to all living beings.
They need simple explanations and answers to questions like ‘where is my grandma now?’ ‘why did my uncle die?’. Explain that bodies get sick, have accidents, and sometimes cannot be repaired. Explain that grandma’s body is in the cemetery. If you have beliefs about an after-life, explain that very simply too, so that the child doesn’t get scared.
From about the age of five, children begin to understand that death happens. They have heard about it from others, and maybe they have experienced it through friends or the death of a pet. This is also the age when kids begin to show complex emotions about death that they themselves may not always understand. Some get angry that the loved one left them, others feel guilty because of an unresolved conflict.
Respond to their issues and keep your answers simple, but remain sensitive to their concerns.
Teenagers can talk about death almost on an adult level and often welcome the chance for a deeper conversation and inclusion.
Ask questions (don’t make assumptions)
Instead of giving a prepared speech, try to ask questions first.
Find out where your child stands in his or her psychological development – this varies a lot for all sorts of different reasons. Find out what bothers them or scares them most.
Respond verbally and also by being present and accessible. Your child needs to know that you are still there, and there for them. Make them feel safe.
Show how you try to deal with the death (lead by example)
If a loved one has died in your family, you are grieving, too.
Don’t hide that.
Your kids will pick up on it anyway, and they will wonder why your mood has changed, why you are doing things differently, and what all the extra activities are about.
Keep your conversation age-appropriate and set clear boundaries about what you want to share with your children and how you want to share it.
But don’t exclude them, and don’t make them feel that you have changed towards them. That may bother and confuse them a lot – and they may not feel free to say so if they sense that you can’t deal with it. Children should not have to protect their parents’ feelings – it works the other way around!
Be open about sadness (and accept anger)
Show your own sadness and show your kids that it is ok to be sad. Sadness is neither dangerous nor scary. It is a beautiful emotion that honors your loss and theirs.
If your kid gets angry about having been left behind by the person who died, don’t make them feel bad but talk about the confusing feelings that can arise during this time.
Include your kids in rituals
Many adult clients report how confused and frightened they were when they were excluded from funerals, memorials and important conversations about the rituals around death, while the adults were very clearly focused on them.
Offer your children the opportunity to come to the funeral and whatever other ceremonies you observe. It can create a focus point and even a comforting memory for them, just as it does for you.
Grief is a long term process…
… for everyone.
Don’t be surprised if children ask about the death many times, they may need time to absorb this new experience. Don’t push them to talk about it, but be open for unexpected conversations.
Also, do include your kids in memorials and celebrations of the loved one you all lost. Create a strong bond together and honor everyone.