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How To Help Your Child Cope With Death in the Family

As a family life and child development expert, JP has devoted years in nurturing students and strengthening family relations.

Children need our help when they lose someone they love.

Children need our help when they lose someone they love.

Death is a reality we accept, but how ready is your child to cope with it? The loss of a loved one or even pets are devastating situations especially for a child. The emotional and psychological stresses may seem unbearable. As such, we help our children cope with death so that they will have closure. Moreover, allowing them to understand the emotions they have will help them deal with the loss better.

Reality of Death

My phone blared out it’s usual ring tone while doing my weekly grocery chore. At the other end of the line was my daughter sobbing and mumbling words I barely understood. Underneath the loud music of the grocery and people going about their own tasks a few words stood out: Ginger, dying, won’t make it. And at that time, the gist of the call became clearer. I finished my errands and drove home quickly. I pulled into the driveway and left the groceries in the back and rushed towards the door. My daughter opened the door and embraced me with her tears drenching her face. “She’s gone daddy,” she screamed in a desperate wail of agony. No words seemed to comfort her and all we could do was just to hug her tight and let her vent out her grief. The pain of seeing my daughter distraught was equally unnerving. Death is truly devastating. Every parent should know how to help their children cope with death. For some, it may be just another cat. But to my daughter, it was part of the family. Her emotion is not limited by the species for whom she mourns.

When we grow attached to someone or something, we forge a bond and when they pass we feel a strong emotion of loss. Surely, you have a pet whom you Whether it’s a pet, a family member, or friend, death is never easy. Ultimately, we face it and learn to live with it. Unfortunately, children are not immune to the emotions associated with death. Furthermore, they may not have the needed skills or the emotional fortitude to process their feelings. As such, parents need to learn how to assist their children deal with death.

It is never easy to get the news about death in the family.

It is never easy to get the news about death in the family.

How to Give the News About Death to a Child

My niece was just 10 when her great-grandmother died (she was 93 years old). On the night of her passing, I and my siblings where beside her, my mom and dad where there too. However, my niece was with her dad at home. Although she knew that her great-grandmother was weak and was sick, she had no idea of what was happening. Her great-grandmother, Beatriz Miranda passed peacefully a day after my birthday. It was truly a bleak night for everyone.

I knew my niece we devastated when broke the news to her but she held her tears back. She listened and understood what happened. But this brave little soul whose trying to be strong finally broke down in tears when she was about to enter the house where she used to play with her great-grandmother. Without a doubt, It was a heart-breaking scene. One of the hardest tasks is giving the news of a loved one passing away. If adults have difficulty accepting the death of someone they love how much more difficult it may be for a child? So how do you tell a child such intense news?

Use simple words

We tend to sugarcoat words about death perhaps to lessen the blow of the news. We use different euphemisms perhaps since it sounds more polite. However, this may not work well for children. For one, they may not be familiar with words you are using. Likewise, you may be uttering words devoid of what truly maters to the child. It is therefore essential to choose words that are simple to understand and provide comfort.

Examples of simple words to use:

  • Your aunt died last night and I am here to help you through this time.
  • Fluffy, your dog had an accident and he didn’t survive. You can talk to me about how you feel.

Although we want to use simple and direct words, we must never lose our sense of compassion. We have to understand that more than just the words we use, it is how we deliver the news that is important.

Offer emotional support

Without a doubt, receiving terrible news of losing a loved one is difficult. It is akin to having the world crumble in front of you. Thus, providing emotional support is a powerful step in coping with death. In fact, when breaking the terrible news, it is a wise course of action to immediately let the child know you are there for him/her. Just the reassurance that someone is there can unburden a child. How can you offer emotional support when telling the child the news about death?

Examples of how you can offer your emotional support for the child:

  • Be with the child especially when he/she asks for company
  • Offer comforting words
  • Help her focus on the positive memories with the person
  • If prayer is part of the family routines, pray with the child

Upon learning the death of someone, we can feel lost and abandoned. Thus, the presence of a trusted person can ease the pain. The emotional impact of a death of a loved one can endure through one’s lifetime as such, immediate action is necessary. Without a doubt, having an emotional support group to get through this harrowing experience will help the child.

Choosing the right place to give the bad news

Another important aspect of breaking the news to a child is finding the right location. Ideally, we want a place where the child can receive adequate support. Moreover, it should be a private place where she can express her emotions with ease.

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Examples of where to give the bad news:

  • In the privacy of the child’s room
  • In the company of family and close friends
  • A place where the child feels comfortable

Learning bad news warrants a place where the child can have the privacy to cry and express his/her emotions. Moreover, it is a wise choice to have close relatives and friend whom the child can turn to for comfort.

Help the child process their emotions.

Help the child process their emotions.

How to Help the Child Express Their Emotions About Death

The emotions children have during trying times like this is overwhelming. This may be a confusing time for them that shatters their comfort zones. Moreover, this event may trigger behaviors previously unseen from the child. In addition, this loss may burden the child far longer than one may expect. Suffice to say, reaching out to the child and offering a healthy avenue to express their feelings is vital to their emotional healing.

Let them put a label on how they feel

In most cases, the loss of a loved one can spark numerous emotions at once. The combination of mental attitude, sentiments, and other feelings mixed into this cauldron of emotions can confuse the child. As such, it is wise to help the child sort through how they feel by putting a label on their emotions. Allow them to name the emotions they are experiencing. The loss of a loved on can trigger feelings like anger and sadness. Likewise, the child may feel abandoned, scared and even threatened. Regardless of how they feel, allow the child to recognize these feelings. By putting a label on how they feel, they can start to heal and not simply face anonymous “bad feelings”.

Expect Changes in behavior and know what to do

A devastating experience can lead to a change in behaviors. For example, the child may suddenly remain quiet instead of being usually perky and lively. Furthermore, the child may lose interest in activities he or she usually enjoys. Interestingly, forcing the child to act normal may be counterproductive. Instead, offer then the space to grieve and mourn the loss. However, this does not mean idly letting the child undertake unhealthy or even dangerous actions. Rather, offer the child alternative ways of expressing how they feel. Perhaps the child can draw how they feel, write a farewell letter, enumerate fond memories and other more productive way of dealing with emotions.

Help the child cope by sharing what to expect

Different cultures have traditions and rituals associated with death. Your family, may have your specific customs and traditions. It would be wise idea to explain to the child what will happen. This may provide comfort in knowing what to expect next. Likewise, you can tell the child that friends and relatives will come and visit. You can tell them about traditions like saying a something nice about the person who died. People may even approach him or her and offer their condolences.

A death in the family comes with changes. It is an excellent idea to discuss the changes that may take place. For example, if one parent dies, you may want to talk about who will bring the child to school. This is a critical part of preparing the child for what may come.

Give the child some responsibilities

Another way of helping the child cope with the death is to give them tasks. Of course, depending on the child’s age and abilities, these tasks and responsibilities may vary. For example, the child can help welcome other children who may visit. You may assign the task of ensuring there is adequate food on the table. The basic idea is to provide the child with an active task that he or she can do.

When my child’s pet died, we gave her the task to ensure that there are fresh flowers offered to her cat every day. This gave my daughter an active role in remembering her pet. Her mom drew a picture of Ginger (that’s our cat) and we even had a simple service in memory of our pet.

Providing the child with a task or responsibility allows the child to participate in the process of letting go of a loved one.

Help the child heal from this devastating experience.

Help the child heal from this devastating experience.

How to Help the Child Heal From the Experience

Healing from a harrowing experience of loss is a process. Unfortunately, not everyone heals at the same rate and in the same way. There are individuals who still carry the pain of losing someone years after while others never truly find peace. In this regard, we as parents need to provide assistance to our children as soon as possible. The real question now is how can you, as their parent, help in their healing?

Understand how they feel

Surely, sadness is not the only emotion that your child may feel. More than labeling their feelings, allow your child to expound on how they feel. I remember one student who loss his dad. When I spoke with him, he shared that he was afraid to go to the hospital since he thought that people go there to die. It turned out that no one explained to him why his dad went to the hospital and died. Learning details like this and correcting their view will help them comprehend life and death. Moreover, sorting through what confuses them will allow them better understanding of the situation. The key here is to talk to them in a way they would understand while comforting them.

Share your own feelings

A very close friend of mine died in the 9/11 attack. I reached out to his family and was able to speak to his wife and daughter. The daughter kept to herself and avoided any conversation about how she felt. This was something I expected. I told her that I missed her dad then I started talking about what we did as little kids. I told her how I missed the times when we walked home from school and went through a park along the way. We used to stalk stones and see who could construct the tallest one. Perhaps it was just me expressing my sorrow from losing a friend. With her cracking voice she whispered that she misses her dad. They too would stack stones and see who made the tallest stone tower. “Dad always made me win,” she reached out her arms to hug. “It’s OK, dad’s OK. Mom said he’s already resting. And when it’s time, we will be with him again,” she tried to comfort me. This brave little soul tried to comfort me. She pulled me out into the garden and we played started stacking stones. She let me win.

We spent the afternoon, playing and talking about how she felt. Before I left that day, I saw her smile. The pain was still there, but the healing process was starting. Long after this tragic moment in her life she still sends me photos of stones she’d stack.

Be there for them

Nothing is as important as a child knowing there is someone there for them. Having a person simply by your side can do wonders especially when the feeling of abandonment creeps in. Death is such a lonely experience. However, this does not mean the child should be alone.

Physical presence is an excellent place to start. Having someone close to you in times of grief is a reassuring boost for any depressed person. However, physical closeness is insufficient. Instead, offer emotional support. For example, connect with the child and allow him/her to lean on you for support. Likewise, let the child know you are there to not just as a shoulder to cry on but as someone they can open up their feelings.

More importantly, create a support group for the child. Friends and family can help out. Although effect of the loss is on everyone, children may require more attention. Thus having a support group present will do wonders not just for the child but for everyone mourning.

Ensure that the child has a support group - family is the primary support group of your child. Although everyone are undergoing intense emotions, remember that kids need extra attention to help them through the situation.

Healing from this devastating experience is never an overnight endeavor. Rather, it is a continuous and arduous process. Children need our support as they heal from the loss of a loved one.

Death is a topic from which people shy away. Children who experience this tragedy are subject to the same upsetting reality. Just like others, they too grieve and with our help, they too can heal. So how do we help children cope with death? We help them through compassion and love.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 JP Carlos

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