Helping Children Cope With the Death of a Loved One
by: Michael Kabel
The grieving process and the sense of loss that follows the death of a loved one is often crippling to adults and often takes years to recover. For children, the event can have a smaller scale, though no less effective an impact.
Children deal with grief differently, and their reaction to a death will depend on their own experiences, their age level, and to a certain extent their personality. Parents need to monitor their child's reactions and keep several rules and guidelines in mind.
Honesty is important.
Well-intentioned parents often attempt to sugar coat or distort details of the death (or the death itself) in an effort to spare the child's feelings. But the child will discover the truth sooner or later, and prolonging the discovery will only add to the confusion that arrives along with it.
Parents should avoid sugarcoating the death with euphemisms like "they went away" or "God had to take them to heaven." This will only fuel the child's confusion and uncertainty, and may even make them feel apprehensive or afraid.
Make the death understandable – as much as possible.
Explaining a death to your child in terms they can understand will help them come to grips with their feelings. For younger children, the explanation of why the loved one died can be relatively simple – the loved one died because their body wasn't working properly, or that there was an accident. Parents should also explain that death means the body has permanently stopped working.
Many parents face the problem of getting children to understand that, at least from the perspective of the living, death is final and unavoidable. Nevertheless, parents often must console their children and make them understand that death is absolute and not something to be wished for. Though children's understanding can sometimes take time to sink in, coming to grips with its reality is a necessary part of growing up.
Include children in funeral and grieving events.
By including children in the grieving process for the rest of the family, including funerals and wakes, parents can teach them about the sometimes inevitability of death. By letting them participate in the grieving events, it also helps them to understand their feelings are not out of place or atypical.
Making religion a part of the grieving process.
Understanding a death is also sometimes how children come into closest contact with the tenets of their family's faith. While it's perhaps cynical to use the death as an opportunity to explain doctrine to a child, children can sometimes learn faith by the idea of an afterlife. Younger children, however, may sometimes struggle with the differences between this world and a supposed next world. Again, parents should make it abundantly clear that death is final and one-way.
Getting additional help
Parents can also find themselves powerless or frustrated to help children overcome confusion and grief. If the negative feelings continue for some time or begin taking unhealthy outlets, parents should retain the help of a counselor or psychologist. The child may also take heed to a role model or trusted authority figure, such as a teacher or faith leader.