Losing someone or something we love is part of life. As adults, we are mature and experienced enough to understand this. However, grief and sorrow may be something a child has never experienced before.
Losing a loved one, a pet or a friend may devastate a child, especially if it is the first time they have experienced such a loss.
Despite the intense feeling of loss, it may not be obvious from their reactions. It may be expressed in different ways, e.g. they may verbalise it (which rarely happens), complain of physical discomfort (such as headaches or tummy aches), or become anxious and distressed with other aspects of life (like school or activities).
Be ready to help them if it manifests in an unhealthy manner. While we may not be able to protect them from feeling grief or sorrow, we can help them feel safe. Allow and encourage them to express their feelings, which can help them to develop healthy coping skills that will serve them as adults.
Your approach should be developmentally appropriate, i.e. the way we talk to a toddler would be different from how we talk to an older child. Use this chance to talk to them about the circle of life. Help them better understand it instead of shielding them from it.
Help them cope
Be factual when you explain about death, especially when talking to toddlers. Use simple and direct words instead of euphemisms. Saying “Grandpa went to sleep and is in heaven” may backfire and cause them to fear naps or bedtime, worrying that they will also go to “sleep” forever.
A simple explanation is that death means a person’s body no longer works the way it did when the person was alive. Take this opportunity to share your religious or spiritual beliefs about death and encourage him to ask questions.
Answer them in an honest and direct manner. If you cannot answer immediately, help find the answer. This will go a long way in reassuring them and making them come to terms with the loss.
Encourage them to express their emotions by asking them to draw a picture, or to note their thoughts and feelings in a diary or journal.
In the event a parent or caregiver passes away, a common worry is who will then take care of the child, which may manifest in them feeling insecure. A child may become more clingy or feel abandoned. Additionally, they may feel responsible for the loss.
It is vital that we make a child understand that no blame is attached to them, and that the person who died will not be coming back. Do what you can to provide them with as much love and affection as possible to assuage their worries of who will still care for them.
Also, before you help a child deal with loss, take a moment to clarify your own thoughts and feelings. This includes your first experience with loss, things that helped (or were not helpful) and how you dealt with it.
Your experience, especially if it happened when you were a child, may help you recognise and understand their feelings.
A child as young as three will understand the concept of saying goodbye. Giving a child the chance to say goodbye to the deceased will help them to move on. Allow them the choice of attending a memorial or funeral services, but do not force them to go if they are reluctant.
If they want to attend, brief them on what to expect when they are there, along with any do’s and don’ts ahead of time. Explain to them that the deceased will still “live” in their memory.
In the case of terminally-ill parents, many will leave letters, videos or photographs to help their children remember how well-loved they were. Your child may want to compile pictures and other relevant items to create their own memorabilia to cope with their loss.
For younger children, their knowledge of the deceased will come from other family members, so don’t hesitate to talk to them about that person often while reminding them how much they were loved by the deceased.
There’s no harm in celebrating the deceased’s birthday or any other relevant day (e.g. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day) as a means of remembrance.
Don’t hide your feelings
You should share your grief with your child, but take care not to overwhelm them. By expressing our own emotions, we encourage them to do the same. This helps them to understand that grief can be a complex mixture of emotions such as anger, guilt and frustration.
Explain that both their emotions and reactions may be very different from those of adults. As pain and grief come and go over time, a child may not expect when they will feel sad.
Do your best to keep their routines or schedules as consistent as possible. Most importantly, continue your job as a parent by maintaining limits on their behaviour.
It is alright to ask them how they feel. Pay constant attention and help them find their way through their grief by talking and listening to them. The grief process may take longer for some people, so it is okay to ask how they are coping from time to time.
Encourage them to continue with their regular activities as much as possible, and reassure them that it is alright for them to feel happy and have fun.
If you have any concerns about your child’s behaviour or worries over how they are coping, speak to a child psychologist or mental health professional.