If someone significant in your child’s life dies, it is important to realize that children grieve differently than adults. How we help them depends, in large part, on the age of the child. It might be a parent or grandparent loss, another family member or even the death of a friend or classmate. No matter how young or how old a child or teenager is, the loss will be felt, and there are ways to help.
Tell your child what he or she can understand. Honesty is the best policy here because often classmates or adults will mention something within a child’s hearing that is shocking news. Babies and toddlers may just need extra hugs, for while they will miss the person who died, they are too young to understand what death means. Children do not need explicit details or lengthy conversations. This article, “10 Questions Children Ask about Death and Dying” may help you prepare.
The news is best given by the person who is closest to the child. Calm explanations for a loved one’s absence may need to be repeated at different times, always with reassurances that the child is loved and will be taken care of. Hugs and continuing support for all ages will help, but some older children or teens may prefer to talk to friends, write in a journal or connect with other kids going through the same emotions. (See Kidsaid link below.) Give your child time, and let them know you are there whenever you are needed.
Modeling ways to handle grief yourself can go far in teaching children and teens that it is okay to cry, okay to play, okay to take care of self. Follow these suggestions yourself. Find support, and make sure you have private time when you need it. It’s fine to let activities continue if your child wants to participate. If you need more time before resuming your normal routine, ask a trusted friend for help in getting your child to school, birthday parties or sports activities.
You and your family can get through this time of grief and mourning. Your life has changed with the loss of someone dear to you, but you will become stronger as time goes on. You will be able to face the challenges ahead.
Here are a few resources:
The Dougy Center (The National Center for Grieving Children and Families)
Childmind (Coping with a Parent’s Suicide; also teacher and Spanish resources)
Jan McDaniel creates projects for survivors of traumatic loss through Way For Hope. A former journalist and educator, Jan never expected her personal grief to lead to writing about suicide for people all over the world, but that is exactly what happened. Her greatest tragedy became a hope-filled mission to help others through the devastation that follows this kind of traumatic loss.