Coping With Loss: How to Talk to Kids About Death
You might think it easier to avoid the topic of death with your child completely. However, this often causes more confusion and anxiety for them in the long run.
In fact, talking openly with children about death can make them feel more supported and secure, aiding them in managing their grief and understanding difficult emotions.
Keep reading to learn how you can talk to your children about death in a sensitive and supportive way, without increasing any feelings of anxiety or worry.
Be honest and direct
It’s difficult to judge how a child will react to death. Every child is unique, and death will mean something different to them depending on a range of factors.
Children’s understanding of death primarily depends on their level of development, meaning children react differently to death depending on their age. Children as young as 0-2 years old experience feelings of pain and loss, while between the ages of 5-8, most children demonstrate an understanding of death and the fact that it is irreversible.
Often, parents and caregivers opt for gentler phrases or euphemisms to describe death, in an effort to protect their child’s feelings. Phrases like ‘gone to sleep’, ‘in a better place’, or ‘gone away’ may sound less scary, but they often scare children more by confusing them.
Instead, try to be as honest and direct as possible with your child – all while being mindful of their level of development. Use plain language to explain the death, without over complicating details or offering more information than they can understand.
Encourage them to explore their feelings
When it comes to coping with loss, it’s important that children are given plenty of opportunities to express their feelings. Don’t dismiss their feelings by telling them not to worry or be sad.
Talking about how they are feeling will help your child process grief in a healthy manner, helping to prevent the development of mental health issues like depression, or anxiety. You may find that your child shows curiosity about death and wants to ask you some questions.
Depending on their age, your child may also need some extra help understanding their emotions. Fortunately, there are lots of grief activities for kids that can help children better understand and manage their emotions.
One activity that might be useful is naming their emotions. Encouraging your child to name their emotions out loud – such as sadness, anger, or confusion – will help them to recognise each feeling and identify possible causes.
Don’t be afraid to show your feelings
Sometimes, we feel like we must be ‘strong’ for our children – meaning we shouldn’t show them our true emotions. However, when it comes to grief, this isn’t always a good idea.
Children will often imitate their parents or caregivers when it comes to dealing with grief. So, while hiding your feelings might feel like the right thing to do, sharing them with your child can actually be beneficial for them.
Expressing your own sadness lets your child know that it is okay to feel that way, reassuring them that their feelings of sadness or pain are valid. Showing your feelings might also help them feel less alone, as well as encouraging them to be more open about their feelings in return.
It’s not uncommon for children to feel like they are to blame for the person’s death. Many children will still be in the process of understanding what death is and may feel partly or wholly responsible for the death, even when it wasn’t their fault.
Some children might feel that the person died as a result of something they said or did. It’s important to reassure your child that they had nothing to do with the person’s death.
They may benefit from having the cause of death explained to them in simple language, to help them understand they are not to blame. For example, if the person died of a heart attack, explaining that their heart stopped working will help to alleviate feelings of guilt or blame.
Be patient with them
Children react to death in different ways to adults. You may notice that your child’s emotions become difficult to predict, and that they are more anxious or worried than usual.
They may abruptly switch between crying and playing or become angry without a clear cause. Sometimes, some children appear to regress and display behaviour that is younger than their age as a coping mechanism.
These shifts in emotions can be distressing for parents and caregivers to witness. At times, they can also be misleading. You may think that your child has finished grieving, or is coping well, because they appear happy. However, this is not always the case.
Coming to terms with death and dealing with grief takes time. Sticking to routines can help children feel secure and comforted, which may ease the grieving process. Above all else, be patient with your child, and make sure they know you are there to support them, no matter how long it takes.
Know when to reach out
Supporting a bereaved child can be a difficult and challenging process; especially if you are also dealing with grief yourself.
If at any point you feel unable to cope, it’s important to reach out to get the help you and your child need. If you’re need of some support, get in touch with family or friends or contact a bereavement support service like Cruse Bereavement Support (0808 808 1677) or Barnardo’s Child Bereavement Service (028 9066 8333).
If your child’s loved one is unwell or suffering from an illness like cancer, there is plenty of information and resources available that look at how you can support children when their loved one has cancer.
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