Helping Your Child Cope with the Loss of a Loved One

As parents, we instinctively try to shelter and protect our children from harmful events and negative people.  If there is something dangerous in their environment we remove it.  If there is something suspicious, we investigate it.  If something disturbs them we provide reassurance. Our tendency is to do the same thing when someone close to them dies.  We tell them it will be all right, and then usually say something like “your Auntie is in heaven and has become an angel that is now watching over you.”  Shortly after, our child may say that she wants to go to heaven to visit Auntie.  At that point we suddenly realize that in a child’s world nothing is ever gone forever.  The first step in helping your child cope with loss is to be able to say the words “died” and “death” when talking about loss.  Children need to understand that death is different than a vacation that someone returns from, and it is different than sleep that people wake up from.  It is a category that is different from all other categories, and one that even adults have a very hard time dealing with.

Young children do not view death as a permanent condition.  For the first five years of life children see death as reversible.  The cartoon characters they watch on TV are often killed, sometimes in extremely violent ways, but they always return to life unscathed.  Since children do not have any sense of time, the concept of the “future” is not one they understand, the permanence of death incomprehensible to them.  One way of bridging this gap, and bringing a realistic concept of death into their lives, is through movies and books.  A classic film that provides an opportunity for parents to talk with their young children about death is Bambi.  Although many children are traumatized when Bambi’s mother is shot, as the movie unfolds it portrays the entire life cycle from birth to parenthood to death in a charming way.  Leo Buscaglia’s book, The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, also uses nature as a theme in depicting the natural balance between life and death.  The book follows Freddie and his leaf buddies through the changing seasons until they gently fall to the ground in a winter’s snow.  Freddie and Bambi both help children understand the natural order of death and give them a vehicle to talk about loss.

Our reaction to loss is very personal.  Everyone’s grief, and grief reaction, is different.  Children sometimes experience loss of sleep, agitation, loss of appetite, lack of concentration, they become demanding, have fear reactions, and exhibit forms of regression, such as separation anxiety, using baby talk, or clinging.  Because children are very egocentric, that is, they believe the world revolves around them, they sometimes feel guilty when a loved one has died thinking that it was their fault.  In their “magical thinking” children may also think that if they are “really good” the person who has died will come back to life.  Magical thinking is a natural part of childhood and one of the ways that children deal with death and loss.  And although parents should give their children a gentle understanding of reality, they should simultaneously let their children have their normal fantasies.

Just as a child can behave too well in hopes that their behavior will bring back their loved one, they can also act out with episodes of anger and rebellion.  Children need to be able to express their grief reactions, even the one’s that are irrational, in a supportive environment.  Parents can provide that environment by letting their children know that it is okay to grieve in any way that the child chooses, and by understanding that grief takes a long time to work out.

I often say, “it’s not how we die, but that we die” that people have to deal with.  Death occurs in many different ways, often unexpectedly.  It’s a natural part of life, but one that we are totally unprepared for, even when the person who died is elderly.  The grief process, however, is different when someone dies in old age as opposed to a sudden tragedy.  If a child’s sibling or parent is suddenly killed, the shock and trauma is decidedly different than if the child’s grandmother dies in old age.  Both illicit grief reactions, but the loss of a parent, or a sibling, are an impossible thing to explain to a young child.  They will miss the deceased desperately, often waiting for them to come home, while their loss can also heightened by the lack of presence of other family members who are also grieving.  The child coping with acute loss often becomes fearful that something else bad will happen.  They may also become very sensitive to listening to the news on TV, which is predominately about bad things happening.  They may feel unsafe and try to control their world by adhering to very strict routines.  To help your child cope during these unprecedented times try to be as present as possible without denying your own grief in the process.  It’s important for children to see what grief looks like, and equally important to feel that they are also safe.

Perhaps the most important part of dealing with death is through rituals and ceremonies.  The funeral service and burial are ways of connecting to the deceased and give us ways to say goodbye.  It is especially helpful to young children because it gives them an understanding of the permanence of death, and also gives them a way to be involved in the family’s grief.  Parents should be careful about letting children view an open casket, however, since the fear and anxiety of actually seeing someone who has died may produce nightmares and other insecurities.  Parents should try to fully prepare their children for what to expect at a funeral so that they have some idea of how the ritual works.  If you are unsure of having your child attend the funeral of a loved one, then have a nanny or family member available to take the child out of the service after a short period of time.  The idea is not to traumatize the child with the onslaught of collective grief, but to help the child put a framework around the event.  If your child tells you that he or she is frightened, or if you sense that the experience would be too overwhelming, then do not force the child to attend.  Do a ritual at home, instead, such as lighting a candle in the deceased’s honor, or planting a tree or shrub that lives on in the yard.

Children deal with things in stages, just as adults do but, whereas we are aware of the cyclical flow of grief, children are not.  As earlier stages of childhood give way to more developmentally mature ones, children will often revisit their grief with new tools to deal with it.  In the meantime, you will be helping your child cope with loss if you; 1) normalize their grief reaction, 2) give them a safe environment to express themselves, 3) prepare them to deal with loss through movies and books, 4) give them some rituals and ceremonies they can participate in to say goodbye, 5) are not afraid to openly talk about death, and, 5) give them plenty of patience and understanding.

As difficult as it is to deal with death as an adult, children have more confusion and anxiety around death because they do not understand it.  At those times, the quiet reassurance that only a parent can give will do more than anything else you can think of to soothe the heartache of your child.

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