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How to talk to your children about the death of a loved one

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This blog is a practical guide for parents and teachers on how to help children deal with the emotions of loss and grief. It provides strategies on how to help children navigate through their difficult feelings and navigate through their grief process.

When a loved one dies, it is painful and complicated for adults. But for children who are experiencing loss for the first time, it can be confusing and upsetting. Here are some ways you can support them through their grief and some of the things you can expect.

What are loss and grief?

The psychological effects of both loss and grief can be significant. Loss is often connected to something that could be returned, whereas grief is more final, such as in the instance of divorce or the death of a loved one. The death of a loved one can be a devastating experience. The process of acceptance can be difficult and traumatic, as we come to terms with the reality that the person is not coming back.

How do children grieve?

A child’s reaction to the death of a loved one will differ depending on the child's age and previous life experiences. All children grieve in their own way, so the below examples of age-related responses should not be seen as a definitive guide.

Small children- Children under the age of 5 often do not understand that death is permanent. They may ask if the person who has died is coming back, even though they know that death is permanent. Other behaviours, such as clinging to their caregiver or regression, such as wetting the bed, are common. They will often stop after a period of time has elapsed.

Older children- Between the ages of 6 and 11 years it is very common for children to worry about and fear death. Though most 6-year-olds will begin to understand the finality of death, it can be a difficult concept for them to grasp fully. As they start to process what happened, they may find themselves questioning things and wanting to understand more. They may express their grief through anger, or they may start to experience physical pains, such as headaches or stomachaches. They may also have trouble sleeping, lose their appetite, or not want to go to school.

Adolescents and young teenagers- At around the age of 12, children come to understand that death is final and happens to everyone, even themselves. Oftentimes, they are mostly concerned with understanding the motives behind why things happen. Their reactions can vary greatly and may include apathy, anger, great sadness and poor concentration.However, they will also experience positive reactions, such as happiness, love, and excitement. These reactions are important in helping them to cope with the situation.

It's important to remember that there is no single “correct” way to grieve, and that different emotions and behaviours can appear in any order. There is no set order or timeline for different emotions or behaviours. Children's reactions will vary enormously depending on their age, their intellect, how other family members react, how other family members are responding and the culture and society in which the child lives.

How do I tell my child that their loved one has died?

The most important thing is not to cover up the truth. It is healthy to say something that is different about certain events. It is better to say little and to be accurate. Encouraging your child to tell you what happened should help them to better cope with the loss of their loved one.

Try to find a quiet and safe place to speak to your children and think through what you are going to say to them. Ask the children to sit close to you. If it is a young child and they have a favourite object, toy or comforter they like to carry, let them have it. Speak slowly and pause often, to give them time to understand, and to give yourself time to manage your own feelings.

Be empathetic and be honest with young children, but be especially clear with young children and do not include euphemisms.

Young children may react by appearing not to listen. Their parents may need to give them some time and patience to keep them focused on the information that's being presented.

Check to see if children may be concerned that they caused the death. Children of very young ages may feel guilty, so look to see if they feel responsible in any way.

You could ask: “Are you worried about that Daddy has died as a result of anything you did or said?” Explain in simple ways what happened and reassure them that you are not to blame. For example: “You did nothing wrong dear. It was a germ which made your Daddy sick and stopped him breathing. He would have caught it somewhere. There was nothing anyone could have done about this."

Is it okay for me to grieve in front of my child?

It is completely fine and natural for you to show you are suffering due to the pain that you are in so that you do not have to be vulnerable to them. Try to prepare yourself so that you do not feel startling your child with your reaction, but be honest. For those that are scared, say it as it is and reassure them that there is nothing wrong with their showing their feelings and expressing their emotions.

How can I help my child cope with their grief and get through the difficult times?

The ceremony of mourning is a way for mourners to remember and grieve the losses of loved ones. It is very important for children to participate in activities that they feel comfortable and which they feel that they can manage. A celebration provides a child with the opportunity to say goodbye.

If you find a way to hold a commemoration to celebrate and show how significant that person was for all of us, you’ll be making an enormous difference. Show love to your child by making them feel that they have a true connection to that person, and show the significance of that connection by creating content and consistently sharing it with them.

All families will have a variety of spiritual beliefs or cultural practices. If your family is a member of a particular faith or tradition, it can be helpful to contact your spiritual adviser who may support you in explaining the death, and provide comfort both you and your children.

How can I keep safe my child’s mental health following the death of a loved one?

Here are some of the effects that you can play an important role in helping your children feel more confident:

  • Continue to ensure that the child is provided with the care they need from you, a parent, relative or carer, whom they trust and know well.
  • Infants and young children continue to feel secure and loved through loving physical contact, singing, cuddling and rocking in order to stimulate a sense of security, love, and emotionally engaging play.
  • Normal life routines and structure are maintained as much as possible. Try to maintain a consistent procedure for day-to-day activities, such as cleaning, schoolwork, exercise, and play.
  • If children display challenging and/or regressive behavior, try to understand it is their way of showing that they cannot verbalize. You do not punish them.
  • Ensure that other children in the child’s life are informed about what happened during the school day so that they can support the child when they return to school.

Remember to maintain good physical and mental well-being. It can be very hard to support yourself when you are grieving and it is important to take some time to yourself, so that you can also take care of yourself. You cannot help a child if you are not fully in contact with them. Get sufficient sleep, eat properly, exercise, take time to relax (for example through taking a walk or reading a book) and also have someone to whom you can turn for emotional support.

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