There are a lot of ailments we can treat as doctors these days. Whether it’s common colds or bumps and bruises, we know how to fix it. But there are other things you can’t just take medicine for or rub something on. One of those is grief, and dealing with the loss of a loved one.
As a parent myself, I know this is one of those heartbreaking rites of passage we have to go through with our kids. It’s certainly not as fun as teaching them how to ride a bike or watching them graduate, but it’s just as important in helping them become well-adjusted adults.
The good news is, there are a lot of resources available to help you know what to say to your child when someone he loves — whether it’s a grandparent, a friend, or a pet goldfish — dies. Of course, a child’s ability to fully understand death will vary depending on age, so temper your approach accordingly. But here are some tips to keep in mind:
It’s tempting to want to sugarcoat tough subjects for our kids, but when you think about it, that’s more for our sake than theirs. We are not protecting our children when we hide the truth from them. In fact, it is through honesty that we can take away a lot of the scariness, because the unknown can be so much scarier than the known.
That said, a gentle touch is a good idea. Younger children especially are quite literal in their view of the world, so a suitable explanation of death can be that the person or pet’s body stopped working. This can cover cases when the loved one was ill or elderly, and even if the death occurred suddenly because of an accident. It’s also important to communicate that the body won’t start working again.
While it’s great to have an idea of what you’re going to say beforehand, be prepared to answer whatever questions they may have. Their concerns might be a lot different than what you expect. And don’t feel like you need to have all the answers. If you don’t know something, just say so. Showing that you care enough to talk with them honestly and thoughtfully is what really matters, and it will show them they’re not alone in their confusion.
Tell them what happened to their loved one, and then see how they react, what their questions are. That will help it feel like a discussion and not a lecture.
Saying goodbye can involve a ceremony or ritual, whether that’s holding a funeral or burial for a pet, or maybe planting a tree or lighting a candle in someone’s memory. Find out if your child would like to do something along those lines, and support that effort. Having a symbol that your child can visit when he wants to remember the one who died can be a helpful and healthy way for them to cope with the loss.
Another thing to take comfort in when watching your kids deal with grief: We were all kids once. You got through it, and so will they.