Now, more than ever, children are frequently learning about loss. It’s almost impossible to shelter them because the stories are everywhere – on television, in newspapers, on social media and in our conversations.
We can never underestimate how much children know – they are alert, smart and attentive to what’s going on around them. Although death is something we don’t want to bring up with kids, it is a fact of life and talking about it will help when tragedy strikes, or when nature takes its course in the way of a family member or pet.
You can use world events to open the discussion with children about death and loss. The more they know, the more open they will be to talking about it when it affects them. A major problem with grief is that people don’t talk about it, and with children this can impact the rest of their life.
Build Coping Skills
Although children are young, they are resilient. Give your child what they need to be able to cope with grief.
- Tell them right away if someone dies. Don’t try to keep it a secret because they’ll know something is going on and this may make them afraid or cause anxiety.
- Tell them in familiar surroundings so they feel secure, and make sure someone close to them tells them.
- If the death is the result of a car accident, give them an honest explanation about what happened – based on their level of understanding.
- Take note of any repeated questions kids ask – after the event or in the weeks/months following. Their questions will give you an idea of what part of the death they’re struggling with. They may also be in denial thinking that things will go back to the way they were before the death.
- If they’re going to the funeral, explain what a funeral is and the purpose of it. You can use this time to speak positively – tell them you’re celebrating their life.
- Don’t kill happy memories – talk about good times. You don’t want their final memories to be associated only with grief.
- You can also use death as a way to talk about how to treat people – the importance of human life.
- People grieve differently so understand that kids will too. If you have more than one child, make sure they understand that it’s okay to grieve in their own personal way.
You can use examples from news stories to lay the groundwork. When a natural disaster happens, explain that people are grieving, and tell them why they’re grieving – a mom is sad because she lost her children in a hurricane. Children are sad because they had to evacuate suddenly and they could not rescue their pets. Don’t use words such as “they’ve gone for a long sleep” because kids think literally and will believe that the deceased will eventually wake up.
Teaching kids how to cope with death is unpleasant, but important. It’s something they have to deal with so it’s best to give them as many coping skills as you can.