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How Can Parents Help Children Deal With The Loss Of A Loved One?

Whether mourning a family member or a beloved pet, parents need to be open and honest in order to help their children heal.

Like it or not, death is an inevitable part of life. We all want to protect our children from the pain and anguish of grief but at some point our kids will encounter the death of a loved one.

When this happens, as parents, we have the responsibility to be there to support and guide our children through this difficult time. Though each child responds differently, how parents respond to a loss may set the tone for how their children react.  

The American Academy of Pediatrics' website Healthy Children.org tells us, "Youngsters often take their cues from watching the reactions of other family members, particularly their parents."

How can we help our kids?

According to the AAP, "As with most topics, communicating with children about death should be honest and direct. Children need to grieve as much as adults do. They need to be able to share their feelings and talk about how they are going to miss the person who has died."

Your child's age needs to be taken into consideration when helping them deal with the death of a loved one. Young children may not understand the finality of it.

Using words like "lost" (as in "We lost Grandma") or "sleep" as in ("She went to sleep") should be avoided. These terms may only confuse or create anxiety about becoming lost or going to sleep since much of young children's understanding is in literal terms. 

Encourage your children to talk to you. Be there as a parent to answer any of their questions and address any new concerns. "Will something happen to you, Mom?" While this question breaks your heart, it is important to address it and reassure your child that you are not going anywhere.

How do we help guide our children through grief when we are an emotional wreck ourselves?

Remember, it is okay to cry in front of your child. Doing so may encourage them to do the same. Your open and honest grief enables them to feel comfortable expressing their own feelings and guide them towards the path of healing.

If your own grief makes it extremely difficult to adequately field questions or be there for your children, take a break and enlist the help of close family members who are capable of comforting your children. Addressing your own emotional needs will help you cope better and be able to be present and address the needs of your children.

Since I am no expert, I encourage anyone looking for help with grief counseling to contact a mental health professional. In the meantime, here are some helpful resources:

Healthy Children - Helping Children Cope with Death

Kids Health - Helping Your Child Deal with Death

Kids Health - When a Pet Dies

Madison and Chatham Parents - How do you help your children deal with the loss of a loved one? We would like to hear your insight.

Colleen Bohensky June 29, 2011 at 02:23 PM
We've been very fortunate as we haven't had to deal with any deaths in the family since the girls have been old enough comprehend the loss. That said... I'm wondering if it's easier to deal the first time when they are younger... or when they're older? I would think younger you would be able to talk and deal in much simpler terms. But, if they're older they may already have a little bit of a grasp on what death means. And on top of it all... everyone deals differently. Everyone grieves differently. I really don't look forward to having to deal with death and talking to my children. I do find that we talk about death whenever we see a cemetery (like every time we park at the left end of the Stop and Shop parking lot). I'm hoping that the conversations we're having now will be of some help when we actually have to deal with something that hits us close to home. Right now the only deaths we've had to handle are fish. So far... they don't seem to phase the kids at all. The main issue is dealing with who gets to flush. (Ugh)
Elizabeth McConnell June 29, 2011 at 05:04 PM
We are also fortunate that no one close has died when the kids were old enough to understand. We were recently watching some home movies (are they videos now? recordings? is that out of date?) of my husband's grandfather shortly before he died which spurred a discussion about death. Generally, they reject the idea and I am honest but it is not hard to bring us all down with too much honesty! They often express the idea of immortality as well as of heaven (send me a picture when you get there mom!) but nothing seems to really kick in with them. I too am not looking forward to the day we have to deal with it.
Laura Silvius (Editor) June 29, 2011 at 08:11 PM
Melissa, I really like your point about how kids take things like that literally. It reminded me of what I thought of death when I was a child. We had a death in our family when I was about 5. I'd already started Catholic school and my family regularly attended church, so I had this idea of death being something that happened to Jesus, not to people I actually knew. My memory of that time is a little fuzzy, but I'm pretty sure one of my parents eventually explained it as, instead of the deceased person coming back after three days, they were actually still with me in my heart. I think for my next art class I drew me with a little stick figure inside of my beating heart. I can almost guarantee it was not as cute as it sounds. Still, at the time that was kind of a nice way to think about it, and sometimes even now when I experience death in my adult life, that's an image that I turn to for some comfort. It plays into those comforting things that people say, about how loved ones never leave you as long as you keep their memory. It even sounds like what Mr. Scrooge promised he'd do with Christmas.
Vanessa Reyda June 29, 2011 at 09:58 PM
Death is an semotional topic for any age. We have dealt with deaths in our family and among our friends. We have always be open about our feelings with our kids. Its surprising how much empathy our children have shown. While answering our childrens questions, we've all felt much comfort in sharing our feelings with each other.

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