Coping with loss is difficult at any age, but children’s questions about loss are challenging. How can such a complex topic be reduced into simple terms for a child? Many scenarios may arise when determining what should be said and how. Essentially, there is no real “right” or “wrong”; age, maturity, and the relationship with the person who passed all become factors in starting a conversation that can bring healing.
My son Henry is almost nine, and he is at an age where he understands death in much clearer terms than just a few years ago. When I lost both of my grandmothers three years ago, I explained to Henry that “Grammy is with Jesus and no longer suffering.” This was a simple, albeit generic, way to explain why Grammy was no longer here. His feelings related to sadness, not grief, and he was more concerned about my own sadness than his. Our conversation about death was superficial but sufficient for his awareness at that age.
With my grandfather’s recent death, the conversation has been much different. Breaking the news to Henry became a delicate situation because I knew that he was going to grieve. There was a real need to explain death in terms that he would understand. Because Henry has very distinct memories with his Pappy, this loss would be palpable for him.
No matter how you broach the subject with your child, the conversation should be organic. A conversation that ebbs and flows with the feelings that grief brings is natural and more realistic to the grieving—and healing—process.
Listen to their feelings. Letting their feelings guide the conversation is important. They may not be able to articulate the exact words for what they are feeling, but listening to them and validating their thoughts can help them sort out the complexity of their feelings. Henry will sometimes just say to me that he “doesn’t know” how he feels, but he “feels” something. And we work from there to try to determine what he is feeling and why. Asking children what they are feeling and “checking in” is healthy; otherwise, they may hold in their feelings simply because they are unsure about what it is they are feeling.
Keep routines as normal as possible. There are many tasks to complete when a loved one passes. Day-to-day normalcy can become a challenge to maintain. For children, it is important to explain why things have changed in their routine. Preparing them for these temporary changes as arrangements are made can make those changes easier to handle.
Explain what will happen. Knowing what to expect can reduce feelings of anxiety. This is also the time to determine what your child may or may not understand about death. When my grandfather passed away, Henry had a lot of questions about the body and the burial. We explained to him in kid-friendly terms, and let him ask as many questions as came to mind. For Henry, the “knowing” brought more closure than the “not knowing.”
Showing feelings is ok. Sometimes, we want to hold in our feelings to show strength for others. I tried really hard to “be strong” so that Henry would not feel as sad. When I look back on this, he was going to feel sad regardless of what emotions I showed or didn’t show. Crying is a release. Anger must be worked through. Sadness is normal. Being able to experience and process these feelings, rather than holding them in, is the beginning of the healing process, and it is important for children to see healthy ways to cope with feelings.
Remember the person. Keepsakes are important. If your child is old enough to remember certain items that belonged to the person who passed away, they are a good reminder that the person lives on through us. Take time to look at those keepsakes every now and then. Reflecting on those memories is healing. When we last saw my grandfather, he and Henry sat together and flipped through an old photo album from his time in the Korean War. Henry is fascinated with history and wars, and Henry will now be the one to tell Pappy’s story through his album.
What I have learned from helping Henry understand and cope with the loss of my grandfather has, in many ways, been healing for me. Presenting the idea of death to Henry in simple terms and helping him understand loss has directed me to focus on understanding my own feelings as well. Where it is sometimes easier to avoid the hard talks about feelings, explaining it to a child brings the matter front and center, and provides the opportunity to heal together.
Deirdre Johns is Mom to Henry, an eight and a half-year-old lover of animals and nature. She has been teaching English for thirteen years, currently at Hilton Head Christian Academy, and has lived in the Lowcountry with her family since 2012.