Children grieve differently from adults. Young children may not even understand what death means, or that people who have died will not be coming back. They may worry they have done something to cause the death. On the other hand, they might not seem too concerned about it, or even go from crying one moment to wanting to play the next. The child may even feel angry at the person who has died. As children get older, they may begin to understand more, but will still need help from their parents and other caregivers on how to process and cope with loss.
Delivering the sad news should be done by the person closest to the child, even if that person is a parent who is also grieving. Be thoughtful about when and where to have the conversation, avoiding immediately prior to your child leaving for school or the minute they return from school. When possible, do not wake the child up during the night. In most cases, the news can wait until morning.
According to the Child Mind Institute, the death of a parent is a much more difficult and traumatic event for a child of any age to comprehend and cope with. The remaining parent is likely to be extremely upset. Choose a time when you feel you can share the news without feeling out of control of your emotions. Explain the death using developmentally appropriate words and make sure children know that they will still be taken care of. In the case of the death of a parent, no matter what the child’s age, professional counseling is often a good idea.
When the loss is a family pet, the Institute recommends that you be open and honest about the incident if the death happens unexpectedly. If your pet is suffering from an illness that requires it to be euthanized, reassure your child that your vet has done everything she can but that your pet was too sick to ever recover. Avoid potentially vague and confusing phrases such as “put down.” Children told the pet has been “put to sleep” can develop a fear of going to sleep.
The Child Mind Institute offers the following guidelines for parents of grieving children:
♦ Follow their lead. Giving children too much information can overwhelm them. It is better to let them ask questions and then answer in the best (and most developmentally appropriate) way you can.
♦ Encourage children to express their feelings. Do not try to “protect” or “shelter” children by attempting to hide your own sadness. They will invariably know that something is wrong but will be left feeling alone and confused.
♦ Do not use euphemisms. Avoid phrases like “passed away,” “gone,” “we lost him.” Kids tend to be very literal, and this kind of fuzzy language leaves them anxious, scared and often confused. Or conversely, it may lead them to believe the deceased will come back and that death is not permanent.
♦ Maintain normal routines as much as possible. Grief takes time but children benefit from the security of regular routines and knowing that life goes on.
♦ Memorialize the person who died. Remembering is part of grieving and part of healing. This can be as simple as sharing memories of the person who died or bringing up the name of the person who died so that your child knows it is okay to talk about and remember that person.
♦ Whenever a death occurs, it is a good idea to notify your child’s school counselor and teacher so they can be on the lookout for behaviors that indicate the child is struggling with grief. The school counselors often have groups with children who have suffered losses. This can help your child see that others have dealt with this too and they can provide peer support, comfort, and understanding.