As adults, we find the grief process overwhelming, and often feel like we are sinking and will never be able to come up for air. In the midst of that, you now need to tell a child that someone they love has died. A gut wrenching thought, but one that cannot be avoided and should not be put off until later.
It is important to remember that children do not necessarily experience grief the same way an adult does. How they process the information and their grief is very dependent upon their age and maturity level. Here are some guidelines to help you discuss the death of a loved one with a child.
Do not put off telling the child about the loss. They can sense something is wrong and may become frightened. So be truthful. The truth explains your feelings of sadness and your tears.
Remember, this is a child you talking with, and not an adult. There is no way to predict his or her reaction to the news. Simply accept how they respond and do not judge them. If they are not ready to talk, then give them the time they need to process the shock and then talk to them again. Let them know that whatever they are feeling is perfectly acceptable.
Use the Words Dead or Died
Do not use euphemisms to describe what has happened. Research shows that using the words died or dead actually help the child process what has happened. Euphemisms such as the person has gone to sleep can be very confusing, especially for young children who take the words literally.
Don’t Tell Them Everything at Once
Give them the information in smaller doses, let them process, and then give them more information when they are ready. You can gauge your next words by the questions the child has for you.
Say “I Don’t Know”
If you don’t know the answer, then admit it. It isn’t possible for any one person to have all the answers. Admit you don’t know the answer, and be there to support them.
Crying is a healthy part of the grieving process. Let the child cry, and cry along with them. Let them know that tears are okay.
Include the Child
Include the child in the process of planning the funeral. Let them choose a favourite song or memory that they would like included. This gives them the sense that they have some control in a world that otherwise feels like it has gone completely out of control.
Let Them Grieve
The child’s grieving process will not be the same as yours. Accept that. When they need to cry, let them cry. When they get angry, let them get it out. When they want to be quiet, let them be quiet. If they want to be alone or play with friends, support their decision.
Prepare Them for the Funeral
Prepare them for what they will see at the funeral or celebration of life. Tell them that other people will be there who will also be sad.
Prepare Them for the Future
Discuss the future and how things will be different. Discuss how holidays will be difficult. Plan the next holiday together.
Remember that grieving is a process, so be prepared to talk about death and dying for the next undetermined period of time. Do not get impatient with the child, but let them talk if they need to and be ready to answer their questions (possibly the same question many times over).
Take Care of Yourself
Do not forget to take care of yourself during this difficult time. You will not be able to support your child if you are not taking care of yourself. Remember that you, too, are in the midst of the grieving process. Your process may be different than the child’s but it’s your process and you need to take the time to go through the steps.
It will not be easy, but the two of you will be able to get through this together.