My children have lost two close family members within the last two years. Their Aunt (my sister) to cancer and their Grandfather (my father-in-law) to the Covid-19 virus. Explaining the loss of a loved one to a child can be overwhelming, especially when you are also dealing with your own grief. Here are five tips to help your child understand their grief be it for a friend, a family member or even a pet.
Tell them the truth
Be straight forward when you explain the loss and present facts in an age appropriate language. Children understand a lot more than we give them credit for. A clear statement like ‘Grandpa’s heart stopped and his body is not working anymore’. If your child is older they will need more details like the name of the illness. Your children will be looking to you for emotional cues so it’s alright to say you are sad but assure them that you will be OK.
Acknowledge your child’s grief
It is important to recognize that everyone grieves differently. Allow them to grieve in their own way. Your child may have more meltdowns than usual, or lash out in anger over the smallest inconveniences. Some children become overly clingy and feel very insecure if someone needs to leave the house to run errands. They may feel sadness, anger and fear all at once and these are big emotions to feel. Give them all the time, space and love to allow them to grieve how they need.
Be prepared to answer a lot of questions
As your child processes the loss in the first few days (and even months and years later) as life begins to normalize, be prepared for a multitude of questions. These questions will pop up in the middle of play time or when you are least expecting it. They will catch you off guard and perhaps break your heart. It hurts to know that your babies are hurting but answering as truthfully as you can will help them build a new normal.
Months after my sister’s death, my 4 year old suddenly asked me ‘Can we give her a potion to bring her back to life?’ I braced myself, apologized and explained that unfortunately no, there is no potion that can bring her back. There may be questions about where the loved one is now? Can they see us? Do they miss us? Whether you take a religious, spiritual or factual route is up to you but be prepared for the hard questions.
Share the memories
As a family come up with ways to remember your loved one. It could be as simple as eating at your loved one’s favorite restaurant and sharing happy memories. You could plant a tree or create a photo book. On my sister’s birthday the children insisted we buy a cake like we would if she was still with us. They blew the candles out and then released balloons for her. Now it’s become an annual birthday celebration for her. Choose anything that serves as a connection to your loved one who has passed.
You don’t have to do this alone. Find a children’s group therapy program in your community to connect your child with others who have also lost loved ones. It may help them heal to know they are not alone and others their age have also experienced loss. If that is not an option, do activities together like reading books and watching movies that will help both of you through the grieving process. This will initiate conversations and give them the opportunities to express their feelings into words. Always reassure them that you are here to listen.
I wish we could all protect our children from the pain of loss but it is something we all experience at some time. What we can do is help them express their feelings and remember, don’t ignore your own grief.
Have you helped a child through the loss of a loved one? Do you have any additional tips?
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