By Rachel Ehmke
Source: Child Mind
You can’t protect your kids from the pain of loss, but you can help build healthy coping skills.
Most young children are aware of death, even if they don’t understand it. Death is a common theme in cartoons and television, and some of your child’s friends may have already lost a loved one. But experiencing grief firsthand is a different and often confusing process for kids. As a parent, you can’t protect a child from the pain of loss, but you can help him feel safe. And by allowing and encouraging him to express his feelings, you can help him build healthy coping skills that will serve him well in the future.
Kids grieve differently
After losing a loved one, a child may go from crying one minute to playing the next. His changeable moods do not mean that he isn’t sad or that he has finished grieving; children cope differently than adults, and playing can be a defense mechanism to prevent a child from becoming overwhelmed. It is also normal to feel depressed, guilty, anxious, or angry at the person who has died, or at someone else entirely.
Very young children may regress and start wetting the bed again, or slip back into baby talk.
It’s good for kids to express whatever emotions they are feeling. There are many good children’s books about death, and reading these books together can be a great way to start a conversation with your child. Since many children aren’t able to express their emotions through words, other helpful outlets include drawing pictures, building a scrapbook, looking at photo albums, or telling stories.
Be developmentally appropriate
It is hard to know how a child will react to death, or even if he can grasp the concept. Don’t volunteer too much information, as this may be overwhelming. Instead, try to answer his questions. Very young children often don’t realize that death is permanent, and they may think that a dead loved one will come back if they do their chores and eat their vegetables. As psychiatrist Gail Saltz explains, “Children understand that death is bad, and they don’t like separation, but the concept of ‘forever’ is just not present.”
Older, school-age children understand the permanence of death, but they may still have many questions. Do your best to answer honestly and clearly. It’s okay if you can’t answer everything; being available to your child is what matters.
When discussing death, never use euphemisms. Kids are extremely literal, and hearing that a loved one “went to sleep” can be scary. Besides making your child afraid of bedtime, euphemisms interfere with his opportunity to develop healthy coping skills that he will need in the future.
Attending the funeral
Whether or not to attend the funeral is a personal decision that depends entirely on you and your child. Funerals can be helpful for providing closure, but some children simply aren’t ready for such an intense experience. Never force a child to attend a funeral. If your child wants to go, make sure that you prepare him for what he will see. Explain that funerals are very sad occasions, and some people will probably be crying. If there will be a casket you should prepare him for that, too.