A young man who was grieving for his pet goldfish said, “If something happens to me, will Mom and Dad flush me too?”
A 10-year-old girl who had just lost her 9-year-old dog—with whom she’d grown up—said, “Mom and Dad aren’t crying, so I should be grown-up too and not cry.”
These humbling examples offered me a sobering perspective on how deeply and personally children experience grief. With such a fragile and sensitive subject, what can parents and grandparents do to help?
Right now, before a loss occurs, think about how to bring your child into the process. Each person handles death differently. Age, life experience and personality vary from child to child, and parents need to be able to acknowledge that and support their child’s healing process individually. Death is a natural part of life, and how a parent guides their child or grandchild through their grief will very likely affect how they will deal with similar experiences in the future.
Although there is no uniformed way to deal with death, there are actions parents can take to help their child understand this unfamiliar circumstance:
- Explain death to them. Of course this is going to need to be done in terms appropriate for their age level. Using unknown vocabulary or ignoring the situation all together will only make your child more confused and hurt. Whether it is a beloved family member, distant relative or even pet, it is important that a child is not sheltered from a natural, uncontrollable part of life. It is going to happen and it is better for them to understand the process than be under the impression of false information.
- Teach them how to handle death appropriately. Even if it is the death a pet they’ve had for less than 24 hours, parents should take these examples and make them teachable moments. Holding a small family funeral, at which the animal’s life is celebrated with stories, artwork, poetry, or a song, will help kids learn different ways to express their feelings in the situation of death.
- Show emotion! It is important for children see their parents express emotion in these unfamiliar situations, because they are looking for any sign of what to do and how to act. Parents and grandparents are always the number one role models and seeing their parents handle emotions such as crying, will teach them that it is okay to show emotion and how to appropriately go through the healing process. If parents suppress their feelings, their child might come to believe that it’s wrong to express one’s grief.
A popular question parents have when helping their child cope with death is what is the proper age for a child to attend a funeral? This choice is up to the parent. They know their child best, and have a good grasp on what their child can handle. If it is the first funeral, parents should brief their child on what to expect when they go. Sometimes attending a funeral is the best way for a child to understand death and heal. Children closely connected to someone who died may need that closure and final good-bye. At the same time, some children may not be ready to attend funerals, and this potentially could make them only more upset. Again, it is a judgment call only a parent or grandparent can make.
As kids learn how to deal with death, they need space, understanding, and patience to grieve in their own way. They might not show grief as an adult would. A young child might not cry or might react to the news by acting out or becoming hyperactive. A teen might act annoyed and might feel more comfortable confiding in peers. Nevertheless, watch for any signs that kids need help coping with a loss.
Signs your child may need additional help coping with death:
- Drastic behavior and character changes. Ex: Going from a social butterfly to extremely withdrawn and angry.
- No signs of healing. If your child has not come to terms with the death after a normal period of time.
A doctor, school guidance counselor, or mental health organization can provide additional assistance and recommendations. Also look for books, websites, support groups, and other resources that help people manage grief.
Just as dealing with death is a learning process for kids, teaching this is also a process for parents. Parents can’t always shield kids from sadness and losses. But helping them learn to cope with them builds emotional resources they can rely on throughout life.