Helping Children Deal With Grief

This past week we have experienced two holidays: Halloween and Dia de los Muertos. Halloween is a ghost, witch and character extravaganza–a childish salute to things that go bump in the night. Dia de los Muertos is a predominantly Mexican holiday–though celebrated in many parts of the world–which remembers and honors friends and family who have passed on from this life. A child will understand the idea of death through cultural experiences and through the lens of how her parents decide to address the issue when grief takes hold of the family.

The staff at Harley Family Center believe that a preschooler’s education around death and dying needs to happen through intentional conversation between family members. We are sharing tips and information that can help you navigate this sorrowful and contemplative time with your children.

  • Children between the ages of two and five will not have a full understanding of the concept of death. The simple sentences you use to explain the situation will be sufficient for explanation–your child will hold on to what makes sense to her. A truthful and child-friendly explanation will give her something to hold on to, but don’t expect a full understanding–this will only happen as she ages and matures. Saying that your loved one has died and we won’t be seeing him again is a clear, concise way to talk about death with the preschooler.
  • Do not tell your child that the person who has died is asleep, or has been taken away.  These euphemisms for death are understood by adults because we have a sense of the abstract. Children think only in concrete terms. A child who hears these abstract references to death will interpret them literally and may become fearful of sleeping or fearful of being taken away. Do talk to your child about the belief you have about death and dying. If you have a spiritual or religious or scientific way of looking at death share your belief with your child, so they can better understand what your family sees as a final resting place for your loved one. Remember, very simple terms and sentences will be better for the young child–and she will take into her understanding what she can handle.
  • Parents often struggle with the question of whether or not to take a young child to a funeral. There are many factors that go into this decision. How old is your child? How close was she to the lost family member? Do you have a sensitive child who will be very affected by the emotion around her? Do you have an active child who will struggle to sit for the length of the solemn ceremony? These are a few of the factors to consider. Also of great importance, however, is that children as well as adults benefit from a sense of ritual around saying goodbye. When you choose to bring your preschooler to a funeral, you are allowing her to be part of the family’s experience–a shared experience that will benefit all members because it is a beginning of the closure process for having to say goodbye.
  • Plan for the success of your child when you are taking him to a funeral. Talk over your expectations before you go to the funeral. He may surprise you with his ability to act appropriately to the solemness of the event. However, make it clear that he has the option for taking a break from it all if he needs to. Have a person appointed ahead of time who can take the child out of the services if he becomes antsy or overwhelmed. This person should not be one of the closer relatives to the loved one. Have books and quiet activities packed and ready for your child. Your young child will participate in the way that best works for him, don’t expect an adult attention span from your young child.
  • Allow your child to express her own sadness and grief. A child’s crying is often her reaction to the grief and emotion around her. She needs to let her emotions show and be let out. Remember that the child needs to be given the same opportunity to grieve at this time as the adults. Children often bring a sense of continuation and hope to a funeral, but they should not be cornered into that position by the adults around them without thought to the emotional needs of the child. Let your child know, especially throughout the next few weeks, that she won’t always feel this way–she won’t always feel this sadness.
  • Throughout the seasons, continue to share traditional non-threatening examples of death: leaves die and come back each year, caterpillars “die” to become butterflies, plants and flowers go dormant and re-grow the next season. These are examples of the cycle of life, which includes the ending of life.  Talk about the memories you have of your loved one. Talk about the experiences you and your child had with this person, and celebrate the joyful memories that can be carried on throughout the years.
  • Young children often need to take breaks from grief. They will not be sad continuously in the way an adult will. Although it is truthful and healthy for a child to see a parent sorrowful over the loss of a loved one, it is also ok for the adult to take her grief to a more private area as time moves on. An adult’s grief will last much longer than a child’s, and the sadness that continues for an adult can sometimes be interpreted incorrectly by the young child. Children often see themselves as the cause of the sadness in a parent. Allow yourself to continue the grieving process, but allow your child the space he needs to let go of the sadness and overcome it in his own time.
  • New grief will bring back the feelings from earlier grief. It is typical that a child, after experiencing an initial loss, will have a strong emotional response focused on this first loss during a grieving period for someone new. For instance, if a child has already lost a pet, at the next funeral for a relative this child may cry and talk more about the loss of her pet than the loss of her relative. This is typical behavior in a young child, and is not a personal statement about the relative–it is developmentally the way a young child responds to multiple grief experiences.
  • Harley Family Center has books and articles on death and the grieving process in young children available for check out by parents. Stop in to The Lending Closet to obtain these materials.  Listed below are children’s books that speak about death and dying in terms appropriate for the preschooler. In addition, please consider the value of counseling if the person who has been lost to the child is of great importance and familiarity. Talking through the process with a professional can be very beneficial to the preschooler as she tries to navigate the sadness that surrounds having to say goodbye.

Books that can be helpful when talking to your child about loss, grief and death:

Lifetimes : a beautiful way to explain death to children / Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen

When dinosaurs die : a guide to understanding death / Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown.

The tenth good thing about Barney / Judith Viorst and Illustrated by Erik Blegvad.

When a pet dies / Fred Rogers

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