Guest blog post by Ashley Wilkins, LCSW
The worst has happened. A loved one has died, and you’re left wondering how to navigate the difficult days ahead. When a child suffers a considerable loss – a parent, sibling, grandparent, or someone significant in their life – they feel it strongly and need support more than ever. You may not feel equipped to deal with grief and loss when it happens. It can feel especially difficult to know how to help your child cope with grief and loss.
It’s hard enough to know how to support a grieving adult in your life. You may not know the right things to say or do. But, when it comes to your grieving child, you may feel at a total loss. How do you support your child through the grieving process? You may be confused as to what your child needs. To make matters worse, you’re also grieving. Helping your child cope is even harder.
What to Say to Help Your Child Cope With Grief and Loss?
Adults often ask, how much do you tell the child about death? Is it okay to talk about the loss of a loved one? Won’t that make them feel worse? Do children grieve or understand death? What do I say? What can I do? These are questions I often hear in my work with families who are grieving. If you’ve found yourself in this situation – you’re not alone.
Fortunately, there are simple, concrete things you can do to help your grieving child. When children get support from the adults in their lives, it helps everyone cope with the loss. Research tells us that children who have at least one supportive adult in their life fare much better and can cope, build resilience, and thrive. Here are seven strategies for helping your child cope with grief and loss.
1. Tell the truth about the death
Children benefit from hearing the truth about death when it comes from a loving and supporting adult. You may wish to shield your child from grief by not talking about loss. However, they have already felt the impact of the loss. Your guidance and support through the grieving process helps them more than avoiding the truth.
It is appropriate to shield children from particular details about death (for example, if it was violent). But it is best to tell them the truth of what happened – even if it’s complicated. They know something has happened and feel the impact. Help validate their experience with the truth.
Sharing hard truths is especially impactful if the death was a suicide. Sharing facts helps minimize confusion and prevents your child developing their understanding of the death with misinformation or their own ideas of what happened. The Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children & Teens offers specific advice on how to talk with your child about the loss when the death was by suicide.
It is essential to help your child understand that death is permanent and irreversible. All living things eventually die, and there are real reasons for death (After a Loved One Dies – How Children Grieve, AAP, 2009). If a child does not understand the reason for the death, they will fill in the blanks. Ultimately, it will be more confusing and could cause unnecessary guilt or shame. Children tend to blame themselves and may end up believing they somehow caused the death.
2. Use plain, clear language
There are a lot of euphemisms to talk about death: passed away, went to sleep, departed, lost their life, went home, in a better place, left us, taken. These are very confusing for children and can cause fear.
When talking to your child about loss, it’s vital to use plain and clear language that the child can understand. This includes using the terms dead and died. Children can become confused and frightened if the concept of death isn’t explained to them in age-appropriate terms. For instance, a child might become terrified of going to sleep if death was explained in terms of “went to sleep” and “didn’t wake up.” A child might be afraid of dying the next time they get a cold or the flu if the cause of death was because someone “got really sick.”
While there is no need to share graphic details about death, it’s important to share some information about why that person died. For example, if dad died of cancer, rather than saying, “Daddy got really sick and died,” instead explain that, “Daddy got a kind of illness called cancer that is very serious and caused his body to stop working.” Clarity on the cause of death can alleviate unnecessary worries for the child about something similar happening to them.
3. Keep routines and schedules
Life can become chaotic after death. Finding ways to maintain your child’s daily routine, as much as possible, can help provide a sense of predictability and safety. While some flexibility may be needed, giving structure and upholding your child’s typical schedule will help provide stability during this life-changing event. Make a plan for the hard days and brainstorm together ideas for what will help your child cope.
4. Set aside expectations for how grief should happen
Grief is unpredictable and unique to each individual. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Children’s grief over a loss can also look very different from the grief of adults and will be unique to your child’s personality.
Children may express their sorrow through their behavior, like repetitive play, difficulty being apart from you or another caregiver, anxiety over disruptions in routine, or trouble sitting still. It’s important to allow your child space to express themselves and validate that their feelings are okay. Children may not understand or be able to express what they are feeling. Patience and support will help normalize their experience and show them that you can handle their grief.
5. Share your feelings
While perhaps painful, communicating your own feelings about the loss with your child can be very powerful. By sharing feelings like, “I feel really sad and I miss Mommy too,” provides the opening for your child to share their feelings, too. Openly expressing your feelings signals that their feelings are normal and okay.
6. Honor milestones and significant dates
As time passes and life goes on without your loved one, passing important milestones can present especially difficult moments in the grieving process. Birthdays, holidays, and the death anniversary are opportunities for you and your child to honor your loved one.
Sharing memories of the deceased, eating their favorite foods, or doing an activity they enjoyed can help your child continue to process their grief. Being intentional about remembering the deceased with your child grants them permission to share their memories and feelings, as well. It also keeps the memory of the deceased alive for your child.
7. Seek out support
Grief and loss can be lonely and even crushing at times – but you don’t have to go through it alone. One meaningful way you can help your child through their grief is to find support for yourself.
Whether it’s saying yes to help from a neighbor or friend, or talking with a mental health professional, utilizing grief and loss support will help you navigate this difficult time. Taking care of yourself and seeking out support from others also models healthy coping for your child – and shows them it’s okay to ask for help.
If you or your child are struggling to cope with the loss of a loved one, there are several ways to access support. Visit www.ChildrenGrieve.org to find a support group near you for your child, or talk to one of our qualified therapists today. If you’re in the Chicago area, we have offices in west suburban Glen Ellyn and in Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood. Contact us today!