Dealing with loss is an important life skill. After all, death is a part of life. A sad, painful and stressful part of life, but an unavoidable one as well. We all have to deal with it sooner or later, even our children. It doesn’t matter if the pet fish went belly up or if a loved relative passed away, it’s our duty as parents to guide our children through grief.
Don’t shield children from death
It’s completely understandable: we want to protect our children from pain for a long as possible. But lies, avoidance and euphemisms will do more harm than good. Unfortunately, kids will need to confront death more than once in their lives. Teaching them how to cope with loss and navigate through grief is much more valuable than trying to hide them away and keep them ignorant. When someone close to the child dies, it’s important that someone they trust tells them right away so they don’t hear it from someone else. Try to use a normal tone of voice, as whispering will give them a bad feeling or spook them. If a pet died, do not try to replace it. Kids will notice something is up and will lose trust in you. Besides, the death of a pet is a teaching moment: it’s a way to approach the concept of death and loss in a way that’s not as “serious” as a relative’s passing.
Explain things honestly and clearly
Kids of different ages understand things differently, but as a general rule it’s a bad idea to use euphemisms. Young children understand things literally, so using words like “lost”, “away” or “asleep” will only confuse them or give them the idea that their loved one will come back. Some kids might even develop irrational fears and believe that if they sleep or if another loved one goes away, it will result in death. A good way to word the explanation would be that “dying” means that the body stopped working. Children younger than five can have trouble understanding the permanence of death, and they might repeatedly ask where the loved one is or where they are coming back. It can be frustrating and painful, but continue to answer with the truth.
Don’t hide your own grief
You might think that you need to appear “strong” and hide your tears or pretend that everything is perfectly fine. However, children need to see that being sad is okay and that showing emotion is normal as well. If you feel like you can’t properly care for them or provide emotional support, recruit the help of other relatives as well. Make time to share positive memories about the diseased and allow children to attend the funeral if they want to. This might be a good time to explain your religious beliefs and your particular rituals when honoring the dead.