It’s difficult to talk about death, whether of a close friend, family member, or even a pet. Coping with loss and grief is already painful for adults, and arguably an even more difficult topic to bring up with children—especially the younger ones. Although children may not fully understand the meaning of death until around four years old, they feel similar distress, and may need equal if not more support to cope.
Here’s how you can help them address their loss and grief:
Help them understand what death means
Unfortunately, you aren’t doing the children any favours when you use euphemisms like “grandma is sleeping” or “gone to a better place” when you talk about death. This is especially so for younger children who may not understand the concept of death, and may have expectations that their loved ones can return again in the future. So keep the terms direct, precise and simple. If needed, you can also use movies like The Lion King, or picture books to help the explanation.
Don’t dodge the tough questions
Younger children may be prone to “magical thinking”, and feel that their thoughts or actions caused the death of their loved ones. This is more likely to happen if they don’t have sufficient information and need to fill in the gaps in the story themselves, so minimise the risk of this happening by answering their questions as honestly as possible.
Share information in doses
Of course, being honest doesn’t necessarily mean providing overly-graphic or detailed information when you talk about death. Tailor the information you share to the age of your child. For example, younger children may not have a long attention span, so provide more bite-sized pieces of information based on the questions they ask, and be prepared that they might return to ask the same question again later.
Let them participate in the ways they know
Inviting your child to participate in the funeral or grieving rituals can help with coping and open up avenues to talk about death. But it is important to let them decide the ways they contribute. Remember, the goal is to reduce distress, so if a younger child finds it hard to sit through the entire funeral service, so let them leave. And for older children, try not to force them into giving speeches, or tribute performances if they aren’t comfortable doing it.
Remember that talking isn’t everything
Everyone has different methods of coping, and that means that your child might not want to talk about death. If that’s the case, look out for non-verbal cues that indicate how they are coping—sudden changes in behaviour or reports of feeling sick might be a cry for help. Show support for them in other ways like spending more time together, giving them a break from schoolwork, or even having a nice family outing.
Ultimately, coping with loss and grief is difficult, so do recognise that it is okay to not be okay. Give yourself and the children the time you need, and be open to seeking help—whether from friends, family or professionals if needed.