Dealing with the loss of a loved one is hard at any age—but it can be especially confusing and difficult for kids. They’re still growing, developing, and learning about the world around them, and being confronted with a traumatic event like this can be particularly challenging. Therefore, it’s important you approach this conversation in an appropriate, effective, and meaningful way. Here are six guidelines to help you do so:
1) Consider your child’s age and maturity.
Felita Poole—a former educator, elementary school counselor, and creator of Restore My Soul—says this conversation should be handled differently, depending on how old your child is: “For younger kids, it is important to give them relevant information, but not too much information. It’s important to remind them that they are safe and that they are loved. Many times, we underestimate the relationship with the child and the one who has passed. For older kids, it’s important to be transparent and to allow them to discuss their pain in their own timing. Forcing them to discuss it when they’re not ready creates resentment and frustration.”
2) Stick to the facts.
After you’ve considered the age of your child in regards to how this topic of conversation should be addressed, Ajita Robinson, a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, says to simply stick to the facts. “If a loved one has died, you might state the fact that their liver stopped working. You may want to tell the child what happens next. Kids thrive when they have structure and when they know what to expect. For example, tomorrow you will go to school as usual. In the next few days, we will likely have a lot of visitors coming, etc. At the funeral, you will see (loved one) in a casket. You may want to prepare your child for the variety of emotions they may experience, or the lack of feeling (numbness). They also need to know they are loved and they are not alone.”
3) Be open and honest.
Julie Cegelski, Program Manager at Walk With Sally—a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing mentorship and support services to children who have lost a parent to cancer or who have a parent currently battle cancer—says that honesty is the best policy. “The verbiage can change with age, but being straightforward and direct when communicating about death is best,” she says. “When a child does not know what is going on, they make assumptions and oftentimes the assumptions are much worse. By being open and honest, it allows the entire family to grieve openly together, while also feeling safe to express their emotions and share openly while they process the loss.”
4) Listen to their thoughts and ideas.
It’s also vital that you encourage open communication, as explained by Caleb Backe, Health and Wellness Expert for Maple Holistics: “Listen to your children, to their thoughts and their ideas. When it comes to death, they may either go cold and silent due to the shock or become highly emotional once they realize that the loss of a loved one is permanent. Listen to what they say and notice how they react, as this will give you the best clue as to how to deal with their response to death, and allow you to console them and nurture them through this tough realization as easily and effectively as possible.”
5 Model grief and grieving.
Shelby Forsythia, an Intuitive Grief Guide, suggests modeling grief. “Kids know when you’re hiding something, so grieve for your loved one in front of them. Hiding your tears or your pain only teaches kids that their totally normal tears and pain are unacceptable and should be hidden as well,” she explains. “Make sure you’re modeling healthy coping and not pressuring them to feel, do, or be anything other than what’s coming naturally to them.”
6) Monitor them closely in the coming weeks.
And finally, monitor your kid(s) in the coming weeks, as emotions, questions, and thoughts may arise and change with time, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Heidi McBain explains. “Keep checking in with your kids as they may have a lot of questions for you, just not right away. Also, look for any changes in your children, as death can be very scary to our kids, and they may have trouble sleeping, feel sad, become clingy, and need reassurance that they aren’t going to lose another loved one, etc.”