By Rachel Tomlinson
There comes a time in every person’s life where they experience grief and loss for the very first time. Grief that occurs during childhood can be challenging, in part because of the age of the child, a lack of understanding of death, and because they lack the experience and skills learned from coping through a previous loss.
But it can also be difficult because parents, caregivers and other loved ones may find it challenging to know how to broach the topic of bereavement and support their child.
Don’t avoid talking about grief, or the person they are grieving. Avoidance can create shame or fear of a big feeling, so talking through how they are feeling, or talking about their loved one, can help them process what is going on.
Try to be as open as possible, based on their developmental level. You don’t need to give all of the details. Be sure to consider their age and understanding when giving them information.
Try to use clear and “absolute” language like “died” or “death” rather than things like “went away”, “has gone to sleep” etc. If we don’t use correct and clear words, our children can misunderstand or use their imaginations to fill in the blanks, which can leave them fearful, concerned and confused.
Be patient, if this is their first experience of loss, they might not understand straight away that death is final. You might need to speak to them over and over again (over a period of time) before they start to understand.
Be prepared that they might not respond how you expect. If they don’t genuinely understand the magnitude of what death means, they might take the news rather cheerfully or might not have any reaction at all to you letting them know. It’s ok if this happens, they don’t need to express any particular emotion, just be prepared for how it might make you feel if they don’t respond the way you expect.
Work with them to create a memory box, write a letter, draw a picture, etc. This will help create a lasting and physical representation of their love. They can revisit it anytime they need to reexperience their emotions and recollections associated with their loved one.
Don’t rush their feelings, it can result in them bottling it up, running the risk of these feelings coming out at other times. This includes times that aren’t anything to do with their grief, or having a big feeling that seems too big for the situation at hand.
Name their feelings for them, as it helps them make sense of their internal world. Children often lack the language to express themselves, and can feel confused about what they are feeling and why. Being able to put a name to the sensations in their body helps them feel in control and less overwhelmed. It also helps your connection with your child, as they feel you understand them and care about their experiences.
Let them see you experiencing a normal range of emotions, but don’t forget to share with them how you are coping with those feelings! Narrate and talk through your processes so they can see examples of how you are managing.
Try and keep routines the same (at least for a little while). This helps children because they can better predict their world and what is happening to them, which helps them feel secure and safe.
About the Author: Rachel Tomlinson is a registered psychologist, mother, and author of two internationally published books, “Teaching Kids to be Kind”, to help parents encourage kindness and compassion in children, and “A Blue Kind of Day”, a picture book about the sensory experiences of child depression. Rachel has worked with children and families in a variety of fields and serves as a subject matter expert for print and broadcast media on topics such as parenting, child development, and relationships.