Helping Children with Grief
Try to keep in mind that children cannot carry the same burden or pain as an adult. Balance the sharing of sad feelings with more pleasant activities. Be sure to let your children know how much they are valued.
- Set a time to explain what has happened. Choose a time when you are emotionally ready. Be honest and give accurate information. Address fears that your children may have about their own deaths or about the deaths of other family members. Help them understand death is a normal part of life.
- Its OK for your children to see you cry. Crying together can be good for all of you.
- Use simple terms to describe the situation to young children. Relate the situation to something they understand or use examples in nature your child can see.
- Let your children speak openly and share their feelings. Encourage questions.
- When you speak about death, refer to it as death. Don't use terms that can be confusing or equate it with sleeping or sickness. Make sure your child understands that the person died because his or her body stopped working.
- Discuss what happens after death. Make sure your child understands the body doesn't function anymore. Use this as an opportunity to share your spiritual beliefs about what happens after death.
- Don't exclude children from the funeral. Explain what takes place at a funeral. Allow for questions and discussion. Encourage but don't force children to attend. This can be an opportunity to help your child say goodbye. Provide your children with opportunities to be involved in mourning activities; this will help foster a sense of control that's often lacking after the death of a loved one.
- Disarm fears and guilt: Death is nobody's fault. Talk to your children about this directly to make sure they are not feeling unspoken guilt.
- Gather memories together. Talk together about the good times. Consider having your child write a letter or draw a picture to help say goodbye. Give your child a picture or a memento.
- Stick to routines. Routines foster a sense of security and consistency for children. Regular morning or evening rituals, such as reading a book or eating breakfast together, will provide stability for your children.
For Young Children
Although its tempting to shelter young children from the pain of grieving, it will be even harder to recover emotionally if the death is not explained. Use simple terms your children can understand and encourage them to ask questions. Let them know that you will try to help them find answers, even though no one fully understands death. The following is a list of questions younger children may ask. Consider asking your child to repeat your answers back to you so you are sure your child understands.
- Is death like sleeping? Children who are told death is like sleeping may develop fears about falling asleep. Explain to your child that when you sleep, your body still works: You breathe, your heart beats and you dream. When a person is dead, the body doesn't work anymore.
- Why did they have to die? Explain that the person got very sick and that his or her body wasn't strong enough anymore to fight off the sickness, so it stopped working. Assure your children that if they get the flu, their bodies still work well and will be able to fight off the infection. Explain that most people get better when they are sick.
- Will you die? Will I die? Children look for reassurance. Let your children know that most people live for a long time. It may also be a good idea to explain who would take care of them if you did die.
- Did I do something bad to cause the death? A child may remember a fight with the brother, sister or parent who died. They may have even said, I wish you were dead or been jealous of the attention the deceased was getting in the time before his or her death. Reassure your child that nothing they did caused the death to happen.
- When will they come back? Forever is not easy for young children to understand. Young children may need to be told several times that this person wont be back. With time and ongoing support, your child will come to terms with this loss.
- Why did God let this happen? Answer these types of questions according to your own faith and consider seeking counsel of clergy. Its OK to let your children know you don't have answers for everything. Keep in mind that it may be best to avoid suggesting that the deceased was taken by a higher power; some children may fear they will be taken away, too.
For Older Children and Teenagers
Teenagers are already working through the changes of adolescence. The way teenagers grieve and the support they need depends on their emotional and physical maturity, past experiences and family make-up. Keep these tips in mind to help your teenager get through this difficult time:
- Be sensitive to challenges your children already face. Puberty and hormonal changes can color a teenagers perception of a stressful event.
- Address concerns your kids have about how the household will continue to function. Talk as a family about how roles may change within a family. This is especially important if a parent has died.
- Don't try to direct grief. Teenagers tend to respond better to adults who choose to be companions in their grief. Be aware of your own issues and get help for yourself or your teen if you need it.
- Don't forget kids away at college. College kids may feel very alone after a death in the family. Keep in close contact to provide support while your kids are away at school. Encourage them to seek out campus counseling or support groups offered by the university for additional help.
- Keep talking. Give your kids plenty of opportunities to talk about how they feel. Bereavement can be a stressful time and may cause past conflicts to flare. Its crucial to talk about shared losses and to support each other.
This guide was made possible by financial support from the Coach Carr Cancer Fund.