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How to help children cope with death and grief

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Source: Lorraine Cormier/Pixabay

Death and pain are universal aspects of human existence. Even so, most of us are pulled in two directions:

  • Get up close, face it and work it.
  • Avoid, deny and cover it up

This makes sense. Avoidance is necessary so as not to overwhelm us, but it is also necessary to approach it so that we can reach acceptance. This tug of war is especially challenging when it comes to talking to children.

In my own background, there are customs that lean towards Getting closer—sit on shiva, tell stories, or keep a calendar of planned rituals and reminders. But there was also another tradition. If someone had cancer or committed suicide, it was whispered or not mentioned. Many other traditions have similar contradictions: there may be an open casket at the funeral, but also a message not to cry.

What to say?

I received a call from a friend on behalf of his extended family. They didn’t know what to say to their 4-year-old nephew whose mother had died. Several family members told her that he was sleeping, on a business trip, or in the hospital. Very confusing. Telling the simple truth didn’t seem to have occurred to any of them.

Tell the truth: not all the details, but the basics. Beware of euphemisms like “sleep” or “in heaven” because children are very literal. They may be afraid to sleep or pack their bags to find their way to heaven. A boy was told that his brother was “too good to live”, so he started acting out.

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What about religious ideas? Share them if you believe them, but don’t say things you don’t believe just to make the kids feel better. Grief is not meant to feel good. (Is heaven filled with puppies and endless ice cream sundaes? Really?)

Children will want to know very physical details: “What will the person buried under the ground feel or eat?” Be clear, simple and honest. Of course, they will ask: “Will you die? I will die? We can’t protect children from these hard truths, but we can soften them with our empathy and caring.

Should we take our children to the funeral?

Adults who remember their childhood losses often say, “My parents it made me go to the funeral” or “My parents would not leave me go to the funeral Does this mean that parents can’t win no matter what they do? No, it just means ask the children and let them decide.

If you bring a child, make sure they have someone designated to take them outside to talk or play if they don’t want to sit still or be around sad adults. It should be someone who is not actively grieving, if possible, who can fully focus their attention on the needs of the child.

If the child is not going to the public event, offer some way at home to honor or remember the person, such as lighting a candle, making a scrapbook, reviewing photos, writing a card, or telling a story about the deceased.

Common Reactions Children Have After a Death

  • Retell the events of the death or funeral.
  • dreams of the deceased
  • Flashbacks, such as baby talk, wanting to be held, or bedwetting
  • Feel that the deceased is with them in some way.
  • Reject old friends and find new friends who have experienced a similar loss
  • Cries or needs to call home during the school day
  • You cannot concentrate on homework or class work.
  • Excessive concern for their own health or the safety of their parents.
  • Becomes a “class clown” to get attention
  • Does not react or seems insensitive to the loss.

Practical suggestions

  • Take long car rides or walks so you are by your child’s side.
  • Don’t pester them with a million questions, but start conversations so they know the topic isn’t taboo. So, listen more than you talk.
  • Accept children’s feelings without judging them. They may have a strong reaction to the loss of a pet fish and no apparent reaction to the loss of a grandparent. Let the tears flow. Don’t rush them, but don’t force them either.
  • Note that annoying or obnoxious behavior may be a coded message: I’m overwhelmed and can’t talk about it. When we tell children, “Stop bothering me,” they may instead hear, “I don’t want to hear about your pain.” We want to hear it; We just didn’t know that was on their minds when they bounced a ball off our heads.
  • Tap. Children naturally and spontaneously use play to cope with any stressful, overwhelming, or emotional situation in their lives. Death and pain are no exceptions. Don’t try to ban death in the game. It is impossible, and it is invalidating.
  • Accept self-centeredness. Children naturally focus on aspects of death that affect them personally. Instead of looking sad when your grandmother dies, you can ask, “Who will take me to school?” That is not disrespectful. It is a necessary search for security after a big change.

Good books that help explain death to children.

  • Barney’s Tenth Good ThingJudith Viorst (death of a pet)
  • lives, bryan mellonie (all living things have lives)
  • Everett Anderson’s Goodbye, lucille clifton (death of a parent)
  • Valerie and the silver pear dear benjamin (death of a grandmother)
  • Kiddish for grandpa in the name of Jesus, james howe (interfaith)
  • molly’s Rose Bush, Janice Cohn (spontaneous abortion)
  • Understanding death and disease and what they teach about life: An interactive guide for people with autism or Asperger syndrome and their loved onesCatherine Faherty (not just for kids on the spectrum)