How do you bring the topic of grief and loss into a world of ballerinas, tea parties, and princesses; or a world of climbing trees, scraping knees, and super heroes? How does grief weigh down, tint or shatter a world of color, curiosity, and newness?
Telling anyone that their loved one has died is heartbreaking, but telling a child feels different because you can’t quite know what or how they are processing. Their mind has only developed to a certain point. Grasping concepts like someone being gone forever is more challenging or impossible for them, depending on their age.
I wanted to bring up this topic because it’s a delicate subject and unfortunately (because its inevitable) a common subject. It’s never going to be easy telling a child that their loved one died, but if we can talk about the subject more, research, learn, and give each other easily accessible tools we could make the scenario hopefully a bit more healthy.
Things to think about before bringing it up with your child:
- Yourself, before you try to help your child process, make sure you are processing the death yourself first. The best thing you can do for your child’s grief/healing journey is to make sure your healthy spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
- Other recent changes, has there been other recent changes in your child’s life? Maybe they aren’t tragic or life changing to you, but have there been some that could feel that big to them?
- Their age, consider what they can handle and what stage they are in developmentally. Here are different age groups broken down to what loss means for their developmental state according to Joey O’ Conner, author of Children & Grief:
- Infants: “Since infants and very small children do not have a concept of time, death is experienced as the void or absence of someone who was preciously close to the child.”
- Preschoolers and Toddlers: “Children between the ages of two and four understand death to be a temporary, reversible, and impersonal event.”
- Elementary-Age: “Though children may not view death as something personal that will happen to them, they understand death as a permanent reality.”
- Preadolescents: “Children between the ages of ten and twelve now understand death as a permanent, irreversible reality that affects not only others but also themselves as well.”
- Adolescents: “Teenagers are curious about death and are interested in exploring abstract questions of eternity and the afterlife…Some teenagers are reckless because they think they will never die; they think they are invincible.”
Things to consider for the D-talk:
1) Give them the age appropriate facts of how the person died. Protecting them by not telling the whole truth, or saying things like they went on a long vacation, or they are sick will hurt them in the long run. Honesty is key. Author Joey O’ Connor made a very good point that if you give your children false scenarios or clichés to soften the pain, they could associate that word/scenario with death and themselves down the road. For example they are sick, will I die when I’m sick? They’re up in heaven; will I see them when I fly in an airplane?
2) You don’t have to have all the answers, or pretend to be strong. You can age appropriately share with them how you feel, which in hopes will encourage them to express their feelings too.
3) When interviewing some young adults who were adolescents when a loved one in their life died, the common thread I found was that they all didn’t express or react right away. Emotions didn’t hit till the next day. If your child doesn’t react like you think, give it some time. Avoid pressuring them to feel a certain way.
One of the questions I asked while interviewing young adults who were adolescents when their loved one died was what would you tell your younger self who was in the freshness of loss?
- Write more things down that you remember about the person.
- It takes time, and don’t shove grief to the side or be ashamed. There is hope, but there will be hard days still ahead. There is still beauty, and life, it’s going to be a good life.
- Find yourself an environment, a space where you can be alone and think and grieve for yourself
It’s hard, and there’s no manual for grief or helping kids through loss. So, take your time, one day at a time.
*I’m not an expert or a professional, what I have to offer are my own experiences and research.