It is hard for us to talk about loss in general.
However, our anxiety amplifies when we are entrusted to help or explain to a child when a death occurs. Nearly every day as a grief counselor my phone rings with the question of how to explain grief and death to children. Let me preface this article by saying — there are no magic words, formulas or phrases to give to a child to alleviate their pain. However, there are some helpful hints that have guided and grounded me in my work as a bereavement coordinator.
Of primary importance is that you do not have to have all the answers. When a kid asks about what happened to their loved one our instinct (and anxiety) is that we have to give them a succinct, easily digested answer. When we don’t have that answer we fear we are letting the child down. Rest assured that uncertainty, silence and letting the child grapple with answers that make sense to them is all a healthy part of the mourning process. Children need adults who will listen to them, be patient with them and be consistent support more than they need words or advice.
Next, seek out resources. There are some wonderful books and websites that are helpful in providing guidance and outlets for kids to explore grief. I’ve included a few resources later in this column. I continue to be amazed at the power of children’s literature to explore complex topics such as loss. For example, the Harry Potter series facilitates an abundance of conversations surrounding death that are invaluable.
It is difficult but a worthy goal to avoid vague metaphors and euphemisms when talking about death with children. It may seem innocuous but saying “grandpa went to sleep,” may make the child afraid to sleep. Even sayings like “they went away,” can leave the child feeling abandoned or that their loved one chose to leave them. Attempting to be honest with the child is helpful as they process things very concretely.
Expect to be confused by the child or teen’s behavior. Parents often ask me if it is normal that their child was sad one moment followed by seemingly normal play mere moments later. I like to say that children dip their toes in grief (much like adults do) at brief intervals and then re-emerge to play and “normalcy.” Behavioral outbursts are common as the child is trying to make sense of complex ideas and emotions that they might not even have words for yet.
Lastly, play and art are normal and healthy parts of the grief process. Painting, coloring, running, jumping and playing ball are all really good ways of processing grief. Our bodies grieve, too, and we need spaces to work out our grief bodily! Many kids I work with ask me, “Mrs. Kailey can we messy paint again?” A child’s natural language is play so allow that to infuse your conversations with them on grief.