Loss. No one wants to think about it. When a loved one dies, we can rejoice that they are safe with our Father in heaven; but—humanity being essentially self-centered—our first thought is generally about how we feel. Our loss. Our grief. Our loneliness.
And if that’s true for adults, it’s particularly true for children.
In fact, grief is far more difficult for children to navigate than it is for adults. There are a lot of reasons for this. Preschool children generally perceive death to be temporary and reversible (and this is unfortunately reinforced by cartoon characters constantly dying and coming back to life immediately). Children between five and nine begin to think more like adults about death, yet they still believe it will never happen to them or anyone they know. Magical thinking—that by sheer force of will they can alter reality—is still prevalent at this developmental stage.
Adding to a child’s shock and confusion at the death of a brother, sister, or parent is the unavailability of other family members, who may be so shaken that they’re not able to cope with the child’s ongoing and additional needs.
Experiencing grief firsthand is a difficult and often confusing process for kids. As a parent, you can’t protect your child from the pain of loss, but you can help them feel safe. And by allowing and encouraging them to express their feelings, you can help them build healthy coping skills that will serve them well in the future.
As Catholics, we see death as a portal. In a way, it is to be welcomed: we are passing from the imperfect and often painful world we’ve known into the Kingdom of our heavenly Father, where there is only joy. We know this to be true; but, even with that knowledge, death is still difficult for us to bear. And our children have even fewer resources to call upon than we do.
And we fool ourselves when we think that our children don’t know about death. They see dead birds, insects, and animals lying by the road. They may see death at least once a day on television. They hear about it in fairy tales and act it out in their play. Death is a part of life, and children, at some level, are aware of it.
But allowing those to be their only preparations for death is depriving children of the greatest gift we can give them: the sure knowledge that God has promised us more, that he has promised us eternal life. The pages of the New Testament are rustling with the promise of eternity, a promise we must pass on to our children.
Here are 10 ways to help your child cope with their grief around death:
- Use simple, clear words. Use words that are simple and direct. “Passed away” or “passed on” are euphemisms that comfort us as adults; but you owe your child the truth. For example, “I have some sad news to tell you. Grandma died today. She doesn’t live with us anymore; she’s gone to live with Jesus in heaven.”
- Listen and comfort. Every child reacts differently to learning that a loved one has died. Some kids cry. Some ask questions. Others seem not to react at all. That’s okay. Stay with your child to offer hugs or reassurance. Answer your child’s questions, or say a simple prayer together.
- Put emotions into words. Encourage your child to say what they’re thinking and feeling in the days, weeks, and months following the loss. Talk about your own feelings: it helps them know they’re not alone. Say things like, “I know you’re feeling very sad. I’m sad, too. We both loved Grandma so much. Now she’s gone to live with Jesus, so we’ll see her again someday.”
- Tell your child what to expect. If the death of a loved one means changes in your child’s life, explain clearly what is going to happen. For example, “Aunt Sara will pick you up from school like Grandma used to.” Or, “I need to stay with Grandpa for a few days. That means you and Dad will be home taking care of each other. But I’ll talk to you every day, and I’ll be back on Sunday.”
- Talk about funerals and rituals. Allow children to join in rituals like viewings, funerals, or memorial services. Tell your child ahead of time what will happen. For example, “Lots of people who loved Grandma will be there. We will sing, pray, and talk about Grandma’s life. People might cry and hug. People will say things like, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ That’s a polite and kind thing to say. We can say, ‘Thank you,’ or, ‘Thanks for coming.’ You can stay near me and hold my hand if you want.”
- Explain what happens after the service as a way to show that people will feel better. For example, “We all will go eat food together. People will laugh, talk, and hug some more. Focusing on the happy memories about Grandma and on the good feeling of being together helps people start to feel better.”
- Give your child a role. Having a small, active role can help kids master an unfamiliar and emotional situation such as a funeral or memorial service. For example, you might invite your child to read a poem, pick a song to be played, gather some photos to display, or make something. Let them decide if they want to take part, and how.
- Help your child remember the person. In the days and weeks ahead, encourage your child to draw pictures or write down favorite stories of their loved one. Don’t avoid mentioning the person who died. Recalling and sharing happy memories helps heal grief and activate positive feelings.
- Respond to emotions with comfort and reassurance. Notice if your child seems sad, worried, or upset in other ways. Ask about feelings and listen. Let your child know that it takes time to feel better after a loved one dies. Some kids may temporarily have trouble concentrating or sleeping, or have fears or worries. Support groups and counseling can help kids who need more support.
- Give your child time to heal from the loss. Grief is a process that happens over time. Be sure to have ongoing conversations to see how your child is feeling and doing. Healing doesn’t mean forgetting about the loved one. It means remembering the person with love, and letting loving memories stir good feelings that support us as we go on to enjoy life.
As we move into August—the month of Heaven!—it's important to think about how we talk to children about the passage from this life into the next. The reality is that we never know when or where death will arrive to take us or those we love to Our Father's Kingdom, and the more you can make that passing feel familiar to children, the easier it will be for everyone.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir
Do you know a family that is dealing with grief? You can reach out to them and powerfully light the way ahead.
For young children:
I Will Remember You: Written by a certified school therapist, I Will Remember You is a guide through grief formed by the truths of our Catholic faith and by what bereavement professionals have found helpful.
For pre-teens and teens:
Fiction: A Single Bead: On the anniversary of the plane crash that took the life of her beloved grandmother and threw her own mother into a deep depression, 16-year-old Katelyn Marie Roberts discovers a single bead from her grandmother's rosary that was lost in the crash.