How to Help Children Cope With Death and Loss
Explaining Death to Children
Death is hard to deal with, no matter what age one is. Just because a child does not appear to be grieving does not mean they are not processing or thinking about the event. Unlike adults that go through the typical stages of grief, children exhibit these stages very differently.
Grief and Children
Children Don't Always Appear to React to Loss?
It is common for children not to appear as if they are reacting to a loss at all, especially after the initial shock. That doesn't mean they aren't feeling anything. A young child often is unable to communicate what is on their mind. Although school-age children can, remember they are still children and often would rather play than think about what hurts. Therefore, don't be surprised if their thoughts of grief show up in an overreaction to a toy taken or becoming needy or even more obedient.
With my daughter, she insisted on being near me at all times and repeated the word "mama" continuously. For the most part, she was a happy go lucky child and very well behaved. She would randomly ask questions regarding her father's death, usually while I was driving. Maybe my eyes being away from her helped her to feel like she could ask.
Typically, they may grieve for a moment, then go right into playing, which doesn't mean they are not dealing; it just means they are dealing with it in their own way.
Answering Questions about Death: Top Rule - Be Honest
The most important thing about answering questions about death is honesty. Also, keep in mind their age. Keep answers short and simple. Also, it is crucial only to answer the questions they ask. By giving a child too much information, especially at once, may overwhelm them and cause undue stress. Do not avoid telling them the truth. If they want to know, they have the right to know.
Helping Children Understand Death
In cases of suicide or homicide, it is a very sticky situation. It is imperative to stick with age-appropriate information. Since death is genuinely unknown, I was able to maintain that honestly, throughout her childhood. As she is getting older and asking tougher questions, I answer what she asks, but no more. When she is old enough to ask the right questions, she is old enough to know the truth. Yet, I use tact and love to answer each question, especially issues that are hard to hear the answer.
Phrasings To Avoid
Avoid Euphemisms like "passed away," "went on a trip forever," or "moved to heaven, which will only confuse him/her. Use direct words like "died." By making death softer, they may not have a full understanding of what happened. They may also fear to go on a trip or even thinking of heaven as a bad place because people don't come back from there.
Avoid Oversimplifying the Illness That Led to the Death like "they went to the hospital and died," or "got sick and died." These statements may cause them to fear when others go to the hospital that they will die as well. Or if they get sick, they may fear death for themselves. If your loved one who died was sick before they passed away, make sure there is a clear connection that they had a unique sickness, not just a common cold. For instance, if they had cancer, say they had cancer. If they had a heart attack, say they had a heart attack. If they ask what that is, explain that it's a severe illness that causes the body to stop working." By being direct, it leaves little to the imagination.
In more complicated cases, where the child is not old enough to handle death like in the case of a suicide or a homicide, a child psychologist suggested to my daughter's biological aunt to say it like this: "Your daddy's body is broken, and he died." If they ask why or how, reaffirm that the body won't work anymore." Dependent on religious beliefs, you can encourage your child to talk to their loved one at a cemetery or in prayer but explain that they won't be able to speak with their body anymore. Also, make sure you know when a child psychologist is needed.
Talking to Children about Death
Let Them Talk and LISTEN
One thing important to remember is to let your child do the talking. If they want to ask questions, encourage them, answer them, be polite, but let them dominate the conversation. If they want to be quiet, don't force them to talk. You may ask, "I notice you're quiet; what are you thinking about?" Avoid leading questions like, "Are you thinking about (so and so)?" or "Are you feeling sad." Often this kind of question may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they think they are supposed to be thinking about their loved one, they may say yes, even if they were not. If they think you thought they were sad, they may act sad even if they were quiet due to something completely unrelated.
Also, don't become offended if they say things like, "I wish (deceased loved one) was here, not you." That doesn't mean they don't love you, or that they wish you were dead; they are expressing their feelings of missing that person. Let them say it, and don't admonish them for being hurtful. Until they comprehend death and its finality entirely, they won't realize how harmful what they say is.
Don't Be Afraid to Talk About the Loved One
I know for my daughter, it was very easy to call me mama, because although she had a mother, her mom was not her primary caretaker. It took her a little longer to call my husband daddy. I do remember the day that she started calling him daddy was the day that I put her birth father's pictures around the house. I got them from her aunt, and I let her decide where to put them. We had one in the living room, one in our hall of fame, but most in her bedroom. She slept with them for weeks. I even would ask her questions like, "What did he do with you before bed." She loved talking about him! Often, this would lead to questions about his death.
Don't assume you know how they are feeling. One thing important to realize is young children don't know how to anticipate the future. They may not be completely aware that someone is gone. They may hear the word death, see a dead body, yet await their arrival anyway.
You mustn't force conversations in hopes they will understand. It will upset them more, and they may react negatively due to information overload. Forcing them to talk when they are not ready or giving them more than they can understand is also detrimental. That being said, don't assume that they won't understand. Be careful what you talk about with them in earshot. If you think a conversation about a loved one's death is over their head, you will be surprised at what they do understand. Also, be respectful, even if the loss is someone that you didn't care for, but the child does like an ex-husband, ex-wife, etc.
Above All Else, Love and Care for Them
The most important thing is to let a child know that they are loved and cared for. Don't just love them with words, love them with action. Be respectful that they are grieving. Keep things consistent. Don't allow bad behaviors that you wouldn't allow before, but take those opportunities to talk. If they don't recognize the reason they are doing something wrong is that they are grieving, let them know that you love them, but the behavior is unacceptable. Don't give them a free pass to bad behavior just because you don't want to cause more pain. Instead, teach them how to express anger, grief, sadness in healthy nondestructive ways.
A child might become needier. I know my child would sometimes say my name at least once every minute. There was one day when my daughter was having a specifically hard day; my husband even counted how many times she said, "mama," in a half-hour. It was 39 times. It does get overwhelming but be patient. Cuddle, talk, let them know you love them. If it's not realistic to cuddle at the time, then let them do an activity near you or show them signs you love them in other ways. If you're in the car, then hold their hand.
Lean on Others
Leaning on others is especially important if you as well are grieving. By leaning others, you allow your child to see that they have a secure support system. The more people you allow to help through this hard time, the more secure your child will be, and the less stress you will go through. Though it is important to help your child through grieving, don't forget you need to care for yourself. You can sufficiently care for a child if your needs are lacking.
Even if you are not grieving, like in my case as a foster parent, then adoptive mother, there were days when her clinging and constant "mama" became overwhelming. I would pick up the phone and ask if I could visit or invite someone over. The distraction would cause her to relax and would give me a breather, so that way, when she had another clingy moment, I was more equipped to respond. Don't feel guilty for these moments. By bringing other people over who love her and wanted to play with her, it let her know that she was loved. That she may have lost someone who she loved and who loved her, but she still had others.
Don't Be Afraid of the Stigma of Seeing a Psychologist
If a child is grieving, don't be afraid of them talking to a counselor. If you feel there is a stigma, be careful of projecting that onto the child. There are many ways that a psychologist can reach a child that a parent cannot. For instance, if a child knows their father is grieving, they may be afraid to mention their mommy because it upsets daddy. To a psychologist, they would not have that same fear. Psychologists are trained to identify issues and to address those issues that you may not be equipped to.
Life is hard; death is even harder. Help your child with the tools you can. Be direct, be honest, while keeping things age-appropriate. Recognize if they need to talk to someone, or if you need help. Also, know that you will get through this, and so will they. Let them grieve.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
© 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz