When someone you care for dies, your children are affected by that as well. It can be incredibly difficult to help them cope with this, particularly if you are grieving yourself. The understanding children have about death depends on various factors. Your openness as a parent, their age, their personality and experiences they have had throughout their lives are all important issues. However, regardless of the understanding your children have, there are a number of things you need to do as a parent in order to help them cope.
Something that is incredibly powerful in terms of dealing with grief that spans generations is sharing memories. Talking about the person who has died, and things that you and your child remembers about that person is a great way to express emotions and to keep a memory alive. This also teaches your child that death is not quite the end, as the person who has died will always remain in their heart.
By reminding your child of all those wonderful shared experiences they have enjoyed with a loved one you’ll be helping them to see that the bonds we have with a loved one remain long after they’ve gone. And no one can take away those precious moments together.
You will be able to tell how much your child needs. Some find that just talking is enough, others want to have tangible memories near them. For instance, you could create a photo album of your child and the person who has died. Or perhaps you would want to create a memory box with objects to represent that person. Make sure you show your child that it is ok to be upset by going over those memories by not hiding your own emotions. If you show you are upset, then your children understand that their feelings are equally valid.
Use the Right Language
As parents, we have a tendency to talk to our children in a language we believe they understand. Although this is the right approach, it is very important to think carefully about your words when you speak to your children about grief. We often use words such as “we have lost her” or “he has gone to a better place”. Children will take this literally and this can be incredibly confusing.
Use clear and concrete words to minimize confusion.
If you say you have lost someone, it is likely that your child will start looking for them. By using words like “better place,” children may start to believe that the place they are in wasn’t good enough, and they can take this personally, thinking that they have done something wrong. Do not be afraid to use the words “death” and “died” with your children. They understand the finality of this much better than other statements we use to soften the blow. You do, however, have to take your own religious and spiritual beliefs into consideration as well. If you are a Christian, for instance, you may want to say that the person has gone to heaven. However, you must then explain that this is where people go to once they die, so that your child does not believe it is an actual place that they can visit when they want to.
Attending or Not Attending the Funeral
One thing parents often struggle with is whether or not they should allow their children to attend the funeral of the deceased. There is no right or wrong when it comes to this, and it will be done to your own judgement as a parent to decide whether to take your child. If you do decide to take your child, however, you have to make sure that they are prepared, so that they know what it is about and what they may see while there as well. This is particularly important if you have an open casket, as this may be very upsetting for your child. You also have to be aware of the fact that your child may exhibit unexpected behaviors, particularly if this is the first time they have been to a funeral.
Kids will not behave in a way that you might want or expect. If you decide that a funeral is not the best way, there are other ways to have a goodbye.
One thing that is very important is that your children are not forced to go to a funeral. However, if they do not want to go, you do need to have a conversation about why. You don’t want to end up in a situation where they regret not being able to say goodbye. Hence, do make sure you explain that they can visit the grave or see the urn later and still talk to the deceased person, or that they can do that in any other location, for instance. The most important thing is that you respect your children’s thoughts and feelings and don’t make these decisions for them.
When to Get Help
Sometimes, for all our best intentions, children do not cope well with grief. If you fear this is happening with your child, it is important to get help as soon as possible. You should also not see this as a failure on your part. Remember that you were grieving yourself and that all children respond to death in different ways. If your child seems unable to cope, this isn’t because of something you did or didn’t do, but rather because they simply do not have the skills yet to give this is a place in their own lives. Generally speaking, you will find that adjustment problems appear within the first year of the death.
Children and teens are at most risk for adjustment problems in the first year after the loss, with 10-15% at risk for problems, most likely in the form of depression. It is believed that the majority of children and teens have adjusted emotionally and returned to healthy functioning at school, home and with friends at one year.