A young child has the most amazing perspective of life. They imagine the best of circumstances most of the time. They pretend they are taking off and flying around the moon and discovering far off planets, all from their yard or balcony. They pretend the colander in the kitchen cabinet is their space helmet, which protects them from harm and gives them endless possibility. They imagine all the bad things can be made right and that everything is fixable with a magic wand. So when loss hits close to a child, how in the world do we help them navigate such difficult circumstances?
When a child experiences grief, most parents already have the qualities to help a child through grief, so take a sigh of relief. Kids need reliability, consistency, comforting love and a caretaker that is present with them. The good news is that kids need these things much more than the right answers and words.
While there are many types of loss for children, and TCKs in particular, this article is going to focus on how to help your child when someone dies. Every culture might express, process, and have different rituals surrounding death, so you might need to adapt some of these principles to suit your cultural context. We are going to consider four key questions when talking to kids about the loss of a loved one: How old is the child? How close was the child to the loved one? What cultural lenses is the child viewing death, mourning and grief through? and How curious is the child?
1. How old is the child and how do they process the world?
Assess how much they understand about death and loss. This article will give you a better understanding for children’s development as it relates to grief. This article provides additional information when helping your teen with their grief. You may have several children you are helping, so think through the developmental stage of each of your children.
2. How close was the child to the person who died?
Consider how much time they spent with the person and how much of their world is interlinked with the person who died. Was the person an immediate care giver that they spent most of their time with, or was it a distant relative that they barely knew?
3. What cultural lenses is the child viewing death, mourning and grief?
Where does the child live, who is the child primarily surrounded by? What is the child’s home culture and how connected are they with that culture when it comes to grief? What, if any, mourning practice has the child previously observed? Be careful to consider the cultural lenses that you, as the parent, have experienced and how your lenses may differ from your child’s. It is important to speak to a child with the terms and context that they understand. This article will give you more information on modeling.
4. How curious is the child?
How tuned in is the child to what you as their caregiver is experiencing and how you are coping with the loss? Children generally are more tuned into how we are coping as caregivers than we realize. Our stress, pain, and distress are usually very tuned into by children.
Be honest with your feelings, and speak directly to them about death and loss. Crying in front of children is part of modeling for them how to grieve; it is helpful to them, not harmful. It is helpful to their processing to speak honestly to them about what you feel and how the death is impacting you. Tell stories and create an open home culture around talking about the person and the grief. Allow them to ask questions and answer them honestly and directly in a calm fashion.
Don’t use euphemisms! We often use euphemisms when we feel uncomfortable, and death is very uncomfortable. Euphemisms are often confusing to children. When we say “She is in a better place,” kids often think she is somewhere great, death is a good thing. Or “She went to sleep forever,” could produce fear, if I go to sleep will I never wake up? “She passed away,” a child may not be sure what that means. Questions of heaven and what happens after a person dies may come up. Be as honest as you can with these complex questions, and even share where you might have questions for God yourself.
Another way to support your child’s curiousness is to validate emotions and talk about your emotions. When grieving, a large range of emotions is normal. One goes from little to no emotion, to strong emotions. Anger, sadness, fear, agitation, numbness, anxiety, guilt and despair are all normal. Remember kids often express these emotions more rawly than adults. What can complicate the emotional temperature in your home is that each person will have these emotions at different times. While exhausting, this is normal!
Here are a few tips when talking about your emotions. It is important generally to be open with your children about your grief. These normally are very hard conversations, especially initially. It is important to stay calm and somewhat in control. Expressing emotions is important, but in a metered manner, which can be very difficult. You may want to set some time aside before and after to process your own emotions, or have another trusted adult present to help you guide the conversation and for moral support.
Be ready to be open about children’s responses. Often children speak their mind and are very direct about it. Don’t judge a child’s response. Sometimes children can seem self centered, unfeeling, unaffected, making blaming statements, have intense emotion or have curiosities about physical aspects about death, which can be difficult for others. Allow the child their response and questions. Prepare yourself that they will likely not respond as expected. Children will likely not be metered, therefore we need to be as much as possible. Be kind to yourself, this is not easy for anyone!
When it comes to emotions, reassure, comfort, and reassure: the death of a loved one is frightening, and change and intense emotions are scary. Much reassurance, comfort, and more reassurance is needed. When the whole family is grieving, this can feel almost impossible, be so kind to yourself and others. There is mess in grief and it is to be expected.
In closing, prepare children for rituals like funerals, memorials and the like. Help kids with how to tell others about the death of a loved one if needed. This can be especially important if the death was traumatic, such as by suicide or by overdose. Help kids identify who their support people are. Talk to them about how sometimes others may not be helpful to talk to because many are not comfortable with grief, death, and loss themselves. Help them make a plan for how they want to deal with strong emotions when they arise.
Know grief is hard!! There is no right way to grieve for you or for your children. Compassion for yourself and your child is essential. Maybe this verse will be a comfort to you and your family when someone you love dies:
“Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in Him, for He shields him all day long, and the one the Lord loves rests between His shoulders.” Deut 33:11
I have a few more resources for you. Additional tips on how to talk to grieving children:
In future articles, we will talk about how to help your children grieve other kinds of losses. In the comments, let us know which type of losses would you like for me to address.
Drumroll!! Coming June 3rd. . . a new course that you buy once and then use every year you are not able to attend debriefing in person. We believe that debriefing is like doing laundry.
If you debrief on a regular basis your life and ministry are likely to be more useful. Why? Because you know what’s in your metaphorical closet, addressed things before permanent damage occurred, and took proper care of individual items. Our hope is that this course will become an annual part of your year. It is designed for you to use every twelve months so that enough life has happened to sort through, but not so much that you are overwhelmed by the task. Stay tuned!