The loss of a loved one in death is not easy for an adult – let alone a child.
Often, parents are completely unsure about how to handle telling their children. Nor do they have any idea about what to say to help them cope with the tragedy.
The biggest mistake parents often make is telling their children either too much or too little. Another problem is that parents at times may push their own ideas on their children about how they should deal with the matter. But exerting pressure like that is harmful to a child.
What, then, is the best way you can approach the matter?
How to Tell Your Child a Loved One Has Died
- Use simple and clear expressions: Take your child aside, sit down with them, and take them into your arms or hold their hand. Speak kindly and in simple terms and tell them what has happened. Use the words “died,” “dead,” and “death” to explain. Don’t say “is gone” or “has left” because that could inadvertently reinforce your child’s fear of abandonment and make them think: ‘They left and didn’t even say good-bye!’ Also, don’t say “is asleep” since it may cause your child to become afraid of going to bed at night.
- Let them ask questions and answer honestly and sincerely: Stay open to their questions and be sensitive about how you answer. Stay truthful, but keep their age in mind. If they don’t understand the concept of death, you may simply tell them that it means the body stopped working. But you don’t have to go into details unless your child asks you to provide more information. Nor do you have to be ashamed to admit when you just don’t have an answer.
How to Help Your Child Cope with Their Grief
- Allow them to express their raw feelings freely: Encourage your child to talk about what they feel. To help them open up, you may try doing an activity together so they don’t feel put on the spot. And, please, don’t chastise them for expressing feelings at inappropriate times or in inappropriate ways. This is really hard for them!
- Let them see you grieve: Don’t hide your grief. Allow your child to see you cry. Talk with them about your own feelings. Your child needs to know that it’s acceptable, normal, and healthy to grieve.
- Listen, comfort, and make them feel safe: Be available to your child, listen attentively, and respond with comfort and reassurance. Offer kind words, hugs, or perhaps a comfort object, like a blanket or a teddy bear. If the death was due to a violent crime, assure your child that they’re safe and that you will do everything in your power to keep it that way.
- Give them a measure of control: Don’t make your child feel isolated and shut out. Keep them informed about what to expect in the following days. If it’s suitable and they want to, let them be involved in the funeral or memorial service. Prepare them thoroughly for what they will see and hear. If the death will mean big changes for them, ease their worries by explaining how they will be cared for. You may also want to give them the choice if they want to return to school right away or if they need more time.
- Help them remember: Don’t avoid mentioning the deceased. In the days, weeks, and months after the death, encourage your child to recall and share happy memories of their loved one. Help them understand that just because the pain lessens and they begin to heal doesn’t mean they will ever forget them.
Above all, be patient. Very patient. It may be a rough ride – the highs and lows can be severe. So, stay by their side and let time do the healing.