Discussing death with a child can be extremely difficult, and in a lot of cases parents tend to avoid this important topic altogether. More likely than not, an individual will be exposed to death in some capacity during the early years of their life. A trusted adult can serve as an anchor for a child during the wave of emotions that typically accompany a loss. The more that we process these emotions with our children when they are younger, the better they will be able to cope in adulthood. Here are a few strategies to help facilitate this tricky discussion and assist our children in adapting healthy coping skills.
Be Specific with Your Language
It’s important to use clear and specific language when we are talking to our children about death. Using words such as death and dead are crucial as to not confuse the child. Using vague terminology may create confusion and lead to the development of fears. For example, if you tell a child that the deceased individual went away or went to sleep, he or she may think that the next time mommy or daddy goes to sleep they will never come back or may even start to worry about falling asleep themselves.
Include Your Child in the Memorial Process
Children like to be doers. Including them in the memorialization planning will help them feel as though they are a part of the process. Allow them to organize and look through photos and share positive memories with you as you view them. Including them in the planning process also provides them with a sense of control.
Validate Their Feelings and Share Your Own
With death comes a wave of emotions. When your child experiences an emotion, it’s important to validate that emotion and let them know that this is a part of the grieving process. Try to avoid the “fixing” pattern and let them experience whatever emotion is visiting them at the time. Don’t be afraid to share your own feelings with your child as this will help to reinforce that feelings are normal and we all experience them. The more that we validate and normalize the feeling, the less overwhelming they will be for the child.
Don’t Put a Timeline on the Grieving Process
Children are naturally curious and ask a lot of questions. Death is a difficult topic to process, even for an adult, so children may have many questions in the months to come as they try to process through this complex concept. Try to approach each question with patience and acceptance and don’t be afraid to let your child know if you are not certain of a particular answer. As children reach different levels of development, their understanding of the finality of death may change and you may observe different emotions surface. Understanding how your child processes death based on their developmental level will help you to better support their grieving process.
Utilize Children’s Books and Get Crafty
There are a number of wonderful children’s books that explain the concept of death in a developmentally appropriate manner such as Something Very Sad Happened by Bonnie Zucker, The Invisible String by Patrice Karst, and The Memory Box by Joanne Rowland just to name a few. There are also endless possibilities when it comes to creating crafts in conjunction with these books as well. Creating a memory box is a great way to help children process through their emotions while honoring their loved one with you. The holidays can be difficult following the loss of a loved one. Using a clear plastic snow globe to create memory ornaments can be a wonderful way to honor the deceased while processing wonderful memories. If your family isn’t very crafty, utilizing passions and interests such as music, nature, and sports can help families to create traditions while honoring and mourning their loved one as a family.