This is not a post that I was “excited” about writing, like a lot of my posts are. I lost my Daddy a little over a year ago, which you can read about here. Honestly, it is one of my most popular posts that gets views and searches every single day. The realization of this struck me, as a parent, because I am sure that many of us struggle when it comes to discussing loss with our children. I want to share with you what I have learned over the past year from personal experience and research. Here are tips to help children deal with the death of a loved one.
How To Help Children Deal with the Death of a Loved One
Simple, Clear Words
For me, the hardest part (other than dealing with it myself) about losing my Daddy was when I had to break the news to my two little boys, who at the time were only 5 and 3. They loved their PaPaw. My oldest was out getting eggs and feeding goats as soon as he could walk, but he had been taking pasture walks in my Daddy’s arms at three-months-old. His immense love for all animals definitely started with his PaPaw. So the idea of having to tell them that they wouldn’t get to see their PaPaw (on this earth) again was beyond devastating to me.
Approach the topic with immense love and care. Use words that are simple and direct. However, it is also important to remember to be age-appropriate. The details you might give to your 14-year-old won’t be the same as you would give your 4-year-old. We told our boys that their PaPaw was in heaven that he had died, but that we would see him again in heaven. Now, this is also where your personal belief will come into play. We believe that our loved ones will go to heaven and that we will see them again one day.
Once you break the painful news, make sure to pause and give your children time to take in the news that you just gave them. Give them time to process. For younger children, I recommend not offering up too much information because it can quickly become overwhelming for them. In fact, only answer the questions they ask and keep them age-appropriate.
Grief is Different for Everyone
For adults, grief can be different for everyone, and it is the same for children. Your child could go from crying or screaming to playing within minutes of each other. In fact, playing for children can be a defense mechanism. Don’t go into it, thinking you know exactly how your child is going to react because that might not be the case. Prepare yourself for a vast range of emotions and actions. The key is to listen and comfort your children and remind them that they aren’t alone.
- Denial or confusion
- Sleeping problems
- Fear of being alone
- Anger or irritability
- Stomach aches
- Loss of concentration or interest in activities
- Asking lots of questions (or talking very little)
- Sticking closer to you or your spouse (not wanting to let you out of their sight)
Encourage the Expression of Feelings
I also recommend that you encourage your children to express their feelings even in the days, weeks, or months after the loss. An excellent way to do this is to talk to them about your feelings. I found it to be very healing for myself and my boys when I spoke to them about my pain.
If your child is too young to express their feelings in words, here are a few examples on how they can still express their feelings:
- Scrapbooking or looking at older photos
- Drawing pictures
- Telling stories
- Reading stories
Tell Them What to Expect
It’s imperative that you tell your children what to expect, especially if it means a change of routine for them. For example, if Grandpa picked them up at school every day, then you need to let them know who will be picking them up from now on or at least for the near future.
Prep Them for the Funeral
From personal experience, I have to express the vast importance of prepping your children for the funeral, especially younger children or children that have never attended a funeral. To be honest with you, we prepared our children for the burial, even telling them what to expect. However, I still was not ready for the way my 3-year-old reacted.
He was exceptional throughout the entire process, the visitation, the funeral, everything. He even wanted to see his PaPaw for the last time at the visitation. However, when it came to PaPaw being put into the ground at the gravesite, he wasn’t prepared. It wasn’t even that he threw a fit. When everyone started to leave, he climbed up into the chairs and would not budge. I mean, firm as stone. I remember my husband saying, “Little man, it’s time to go back to the hotel. Come on.” He looked at him right in the eye and said, “No, we can’t leave PaPaw alone in the ground.”
I lost it. So even though you feel prepared, keep in mind that you might not have thought of everything, or also if you did remember actually seeing it is different for children. Go with it. Talk to them about it. However, prepare yourself for the idea that anything can happen.
Remember the Person
Keep in mind that remembering and telling memories about the lost loved one aids in the healing process. Don’t be afraid to mention their name and encourage your child to do things that will help them remember the lost loved one. Some examples are:
- Drawing pictures
- Creating a photo album
- Writing stories
Depending on your belief, the vision of the afterlife might be different. However, we believe that our loved ones go to heaven, and we told our children so. We also said to them that PaPaw was always with them in their hearts. Recently, I was reminded about the innocence of children, and they really are listening even when we think they aren’t.
My 3-year-old was playing in our playroom, running around, and getting his heart to pumping, and I was in the kitchen. I heard in exclaim, “hi, PaPaw!” and then he came running into the kitchen.
“Mama! Feel my heart!”
I sat on the couch and felt his little heart beating ever so fast.
He looked up at me and asked, “feel that?”
He said, ” Mama, PaPaw is telling me hi and that he loves me.”
I started to beam. ”Tell him I said hi, baby.”
So just remember, no matter what you believe, your children really are listening.
Don’t Hide your Emotions
It’s important to remember not to hide your emotions from your children even though your first instinct might be to do so. However, keep in mind that showing your children that it is ok to cry or be angry will help them learn how to deal with emotions in a positive, healthy way as they get older.
Stick to Routines
I know that this might not always be possible, but try your best to stick to routines. As parents, we all know that routines help our children thrive, and by sticking to routines, it gives your children a sense of normalcy. However, if you are going to have a deviation from the regular routine, again, make sure to let your children know beforehand.
Comfort and Reassurance
Over the next few weeks or months, continue to do an emotional check-in with your children. Ask them how they are doing or feeling. However, you have to find a balance, especially with younger children. Provide the comfort your children need but don’t dwell in the emotions for too long. Check-in with your children and listen to their feelings, and then shift to a positive activity like playing, cooking, or going for a walk.
Give Them Time
Grief is not something that goes away overnight. It is a process, and it takes time. It’s essential to have ongoing conversations to evaluate their emotions and feelings. It is important to remember that “moving on” doesn’t mean forgetting about your loved one.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Professional Help
The critical thing to remember is it is not a sign of weakness or bad parenting if you need to ask for professional help. Our number one job as parents is the well-being of our children, so no matter what we have to do what is best for our children. Sometimes, what is best for our children is coming to the realization that we can’t handle some situations on our own. Keep your eyes open for reactions that aren’t healthy.
Examples of What to Look For:
- Problems at school
- Grades begin to slip
- Unreasonable fears
- Concentration problems
- Sleeping problems
- Loss of interest in activities
Please note that some of these were also on the list of “normal” responses from above. However, if these problems seem to get worse or last for an extended amount of time, then they can become more worrisome or be signs that you might need to seek professional help for your child. To be honest with you, I don’t have an exact time to give you. Honestly, I believe that parents know their children better than anyone. You will know if they need extra help with dealing with loss. Follow your gut.
Click here to find a list of books to have your children read or for you to read to your children about grief.
Grief is never an easy thing to deal with for any age. However, we must remember that it takes time, and we all grieve differently. I hope you find these tips on how to help children deal with the death of a loved one helpful or, at the very least, a good starting point for you and your family. One day at a time, my friends.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Matthew 5:4