Helping Your Child Cope with the Death of a Loved One

Two years ago my brother passed away. He was only 18 years old. My mother and father lost their son, my siblings and I lost our brother, and our kids lost their uncle.

My son idolized his uncle. My brother loved the kids and he was really a kid himself; he would run around and play with the kids; teasing them and laughing all the while.

I will never forget every moment that transpired that day from the second I found out he had left us. It was an incredibly difficult time in my life. I had to process my own grief and emotions while attempting to guide my then almost 10 year old son through his own grief.

This is something I wish none of you have to go through, however I know it is a part of life. I am going to share our experience and how we helped our son through this difficult time.

You will want to tailor advice dependent on the age of the child. No one can tell you at what ages you explain more or less. There is no exact formula here; you know your child better than anyone; you know his emotional maturity level as well as what he understands intellectually. Just use your best judgment.

Be As Straightforward As Possible

Having to tell my son was the hardest thing I ever had to do. I was going through my own grieving process and trying to deal with the turmoil inside and now I had to be the one to tell my son… I had to be the one to break his heart.

I am so glad I was straightforward with him about this. He needed to know the truth and I needed to be very clear so there was no confusion.

It is important your child understand that their loved one has died and is not going to come back. Younger children will have a harder time truly understanding this, but don’t tell the child that their loved one is asleep or “went away”.

Small children do not have the capacity to understand the difference between “sleep” or “gone away” and death, so make the distinction clear. You don’t want your child to develop a fear of sleep or loved ones going away (say on a work trip) and you also don’t want them holding out hope their loved one is going to wake up or come home.

Explain the Why

Tell your child exactly what happened (in terms he can understand depending on his age). If you have dealt with loss as an adult you know that we search for “answers”. It is human nature to need to know the why and it is no different with children. Explaining this will help them cope with the situation.

The older your child, the more information you can give him. If there was a car accident tell him that. If the person was sick explain that to the child. Give your child as much information as possible that is appropriate for his age.

You may wish to tell your child that their loved one is in heaven and no longer feels the pain of the sickness or whatever your beliefs are in that respect; just be sure to be as clear as you can be about what lead up to their death.

Just use your gut and your own descretion. Remember the goal is to alleviate their need for the why without confusing them.

Let Your Child Process Their Emotions

Once you have explained to your child that their loved one has died and what happened to cause their death you child is likely to be very upset.

Allow him to process those emotions before trying to talk to him more or ask him how he feels. He likely doesn’t understand his feelings at this point so trying to talk to him about it will not be helpful.

When I told my son that his uncle had died he was very upset and initially I was at a loss at how to handle it.

When I told him he began to cry and got very angry. He pushed me and then ran to his room. I gave it a few moments and then went to him. I gathered him in my arms and he tried to push me away at first and then sunk into my embrace and we cried together.

I did not push him to talk about it. I knew I didn’t want to talk about it at this point so why would he? We both needed time to process everything. Although children are more immature and obviously less emotionally developed, they are fundamentally wired the same way.

Let Your Child Ask Questions and Answer Them Honestly

After your child has had some time to process you may want to approach her to see if she has any questions. She may come to you or you may have to check in with her.

Either way it is important to make sure your child understands the situation and you want to clear up any confusion so try and answer her questions as honestly as possible for her age.

It is going to be difficult and you will likely be dealing with your own grief, but as a parent you have to try and guide your child through this process and part of that is alleviating their human need for answers.

Know the Grieving Process

It is important you know and understand the grieving process both for yourself and for your child.

The five basic stages of grief are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Children will go through the stages of grief just as adults will.

Although this is the basic framework for grief, everyone is different and deals with death in their own way so you may want to do your own research and possibly seek professional advice.

The most important part of this is to know your child is going to go through a grieving process and you are there to guide them through it, not dictate how they should grieve.

The Funeral

I was unsure of whether or not to bring my son to my brother’s viewing and funeral, but I am really glad that I did.

It is important that your child is able to say goodbye and it also helps them understand the finality of death.

At my brother’s viewing I remember my son and my 11 year old sister standing over his coffin holding hands with tears streaming down their faces. They stood like that for a very long time. I refrained from approaching them or “moving them along”.

They moved outside in their own time and although they were still obviously hurting tremendously, they were able to say their goodbyes and they seemed to be processing everything in a healthy way. I will always stand by the decision to allow them to do that.

Talk About Your Loved One

Spend time looking at pictures, talking about your loved one, and reminiscing about good memories.

This is such an important step and will be good for the both of you. Keep your loved ones memory alive, celebrate their life, and always always talk about the good times.

Counseling

Consider counseling. There is no shame at all in doing this. Sometimes it can be easier to talk to someone who is on the outside looking it.

I did have my son go to counseling after my brother died. It was just a few sessions, but I knew that I was not able to help him the way that a professional would be able to.

The first couple of sessions I sat in with him, once he became more comfortable with his counselor I sat outside of the office. He was comfortable enough to open up to her, yet she wasn’t so close to him that he felt embarrassed to truly express himself.

Keepsakes

Keepsakes are a wonderful way for you and your child to keep your loved ones memory alive and close to your heart. Pictures are of course great keepsakes. You can make a scrapbook or create a slideshow.

There are also lots of other options out there such as finger print necklaces and engraved pocket knives. The funeral home will most likely be able to share some of those options with you so don’t be afraid to reach out.

Check in With Your Child Over the Next Few Weeks

Periodically check in with your child over the next few weeks. As time goes by your child will probably open up more and more. He may want to talk and reminisce. Eventually your child will be able to talk about happy memories with you and it should make him smile.

 

One thought on “Helping Your Child Cope with the Death of a Loved One

  1. Thank you megan. That was very good advice. yesgrief is like that. I remember feeling angry too right after. Tremendous welling up of anger, sadness, confusion, and bewilderment. You did a good job in helping Aiden through your own grief. I don’t even remember if I did that for the girls or any of you kids. I could hardly manage my self. So I’m proud of you for being so strong to do that through your own grief. I do miss him.

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