Our family is no stranger to grief. In the past 5 years we’ve experienced 7 miscarriages (most within the second trimester), the death of my grandmother, and the sudden death of my husband’s stepfather. My son still cries out for his Papa and will often make comments about wanting to die so he can see him.
I need you to know, my 7 year old son is not suicidal. He is processing his grief. We have chosen not to shield our children from the reality of death, but rather normalize talk around death and dying.
Death happens. Children are aware of that. So rather than changing the subject when it comes up, we use it as an opportunity to provide a safe space for our children to navigate grief and to teach them that it’s okay to talk about death.
So how do we navigate the death of a loved one with our kids?
Use Plain Language
Don’t sugarcoat death language. Don’t use terms like “they passed away,” “they are in a better place,” “we lost the baby,” or “they went on a long journey.” These terms can be scary or confusing for children and it does not help them understand the permanence of death. Our loved ones don’t pass, get lost, or take a really long vacation to a better place.
Use concrete, straightforward words even if it sounds somewhat harsh. Using terms like “died” or “dying” are more helpful in processing grief than using ambiguous terms. Be clear about what happened: they died, their heart stopped beating, their body stopped working.
We tell our children that our babies died in mommy’s tummy; their hearts stopped beating, and we aren’t sure why. We told them that their Papa died because his heart also stopped beating; and their great grandma died because her body stopped working and she could no longer breathe.
Take it Slow
You don’t need to unpack everything all at once with your children, and each child is different. It takes time for them to process this new information and to understand that the person who died is not coming back. Often children won’t show any reaction when you first tell them, and will begin to ask questions later on. Answer their questions as they come up, don’t force the conversations.
When we first told our son our babies died he didn’t seem to care. But as time goes on he asks questions about what their names were, how many babies died, what it would be like if they were still here. He asks about his Papa and why his heart stopped beating. He expresses he’s afraid mommy and daddy will die from a heart attack too. We address these questions and conversations as they come up, and we aren’t afraid to answer with “I don’t know.”
Name and Show Emotions
Encourage your kids to share what they are thinking or feeling. Name your own emotions. Tell your kids you feel sad because your loved one died. Tell them you feel angry you didn’t get to spend more time with them. Don’t hide your grief from them. Being open and honest about your own emotions shows your children that it’s okay to feel this way.
I’ve cried in front of my children when I’m really sad. They will ask why mommy is crying, and I’ll say “I’m sad because our babies died.” When my son cries for his Papa I’ll ask him “are you sad because Papa died? It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to cry.”
Give Space for the Grief Journey
Grief is more of a journey rather than stages we move through to a resolved state of acceptance. It’s the same for children. Grief will ebb and flow with life, they will experience a wide range of emotions just like we do as adults, and they will experience grief in new ways as they transition through developmental stages. Give them space to feel all the feels whenever they come up.
My father-in-law passed away almost 2 years ago. Our son still cries seemingly out of the blue for his Papa. I’ll ask him what it was that reminded him of his Papa and he will mention a memory that came up, or a dream he had, or how he saw someone else interacting with their Papa. I let him cry it out, I name the emotions, and I hold him.
Every child will process grief differently. No matter how your child copes or expresses their feelings, they need empathy, sensitivity and a safe space to process. Listen to your child. Observe your child. This will help you learn how to appropriately respond to your child’s specific needs.
For further resources:
National Child Traumatic Stress Network
Pinterest: Children’s Grief Books List
Book: How do we tell the children? A Step-by-Step Guide for Helping Children and Teens Cope when Someone Dies.