Four years ago, when I lost my father suddenly to a fatal heart attack, the pain of loss and subsequent grief were overwhelming. At the time, my husband and I had two little girls (ages 5 and 2), who were very attached to their ‘PopPop Geno,’ and in many ways, they were my path through grief. I had to quickly figure out how I was going to walk them through the grieving process while trying to navigate my own emotions. Loss is an inevitable part of life, and the intense sorrow that accompanies the loss of a loved one through death or separation is a normal response. These feelings can be overwhelming and confusing for children who understand death differently from adults and often need a caring adult to help them navigate losing someone close to them. It’s also important to remember that younger children are very literal. So, the first step is to ensure that conversations are simple, honest and developmentally appropriate.
1. Have Patience
Children younger than eight don’t typically understand the permanence of death unless they’ve experienced it first-hand. Even when they’ve acknowledged, “So, grandpa isn’t coming back?” they may ask days or months later when they will see their loved one again. Our brains are designed to protect us. Research shows that young children will only process loss in small chunks of time. Parents often misunderstand this as them being “finished” with the grieving process or not really understanding what’s happening. Although children grieve for short blocks of time, these can occur over very long periods of months or even years depending on the age of the child. It is important to be patient, answer questions as they arise, and pay attention to behavioral cues. Consistency and routine is key to make sure your child feels secure during this period of uncertainty.
2. Develop a Narrative
Often, feelings of change or abandonment can surface depending on how close the friend or family member was to the child. Having a story about that person to hold on to allows them more time to fully process the loss as their capacity to better understand death also develops. In my case, we opted to talk about good memories and how much their grandfather loved them. Now, they will often do something they are proud of and say, “PopPop would have loved to be here for that!” It continues to let him be present and for my kids to stay in relationship with him. While this can be difficult for parents, having a narrative helps kids understand they didn’t do anything wrong and that they weren’t the reason he ‘left.’ Remember that if you don’t help your children develop a narrative, they will develop their own.
As you develop a story with them, make sure you share your own feelings as well. It’s hard for a child to understand unexpected emotions, but having a caregiver model his/her own feelings can be powerful. Children learn well when they have a vocabulary for these feelings and a model for behaviors that are appropriate expressions of grief. Seeing a parent cry can be scary for them but that experience also provides a learning opportunity. So, sharing that you are okay but sad right now helps children normalize their own feelings.
3. Create a Totem
Because our children are such concrete thinkers, meaning they have trouble with abstract concepts, having a tangible object, such as a picture, item of clothing or even a game or figurine from that person can help ease the transition in their absence. In a prolonged grieving experience, it lets a child feel close to something physically and also come back to it. By allowing a child to transfer significance to a “lovey” connected to a person they lost, they can also grieve in their own time. Creating a scrapbook with memories and pictures can be a powerful way to process loss together in an experiential way. Children respond better to activities than they do to talking about thoughts and feelings. So, making a game of hunting for meaningful items, pictures and items that represent good times can be empowering.
4. Give Them the Chance to Say Goodbye
You may decide not to expose your child to the funeral – there are a lot of reasons it may be inappropriate for your child and could make handling the loss more overwhelming. However, do let them find a way to say their own goodbyes. Funeral rituals provide closure for family members and allow us to grieve in community. Consider having a little family memorial that allows your child to tell their passed loved one about their favorite memory, what they loved about them and what they might miss. At any age, this can be cathartic. If you decide to take your child to the funeral, make sure you prepare them ahead of time that a lot of people will be sad but they are there because they all loved the person who passed.
Each of these steps can be used whether children are handling a sudden loss or facing an imminent death of a caregiver or loved one who may have a terminal illness. In preparing children for death, it’s still important to be honest, explicit and as concrete as possible without providing too much information. After a loss, avoid saying well-meaning euphemisms for death such as, “He’s gone to sleep forever,” or telling a young child that someone, “…was very sick and died,” which can stoke fear of going to sleep or getting sick for children who are very black and white in their thinking.
Above all, respect that your child is handling intense emotions the best way s/he can. If you don’t have the perfect words, just reflect back what you are hearing your child say. The best thing parents can do is be present and empathic.