When a child's parent has died, it feels like the worst possible thing that could happen has happened. Shock, disbelief, anger, sadness and guilt are just a few of the things she may be feeling, and while these are normal reactions, they hurt – intensely. So how can you help a child deal with her feelings?
It may seem that there's little you can say to ease her grief, but there are things you can do.
From the start, it's important to let kids grieve. Support them in their sadness. Though it's difficult, strive to be forthright and honest about the death.
It's important to stress that all children are different and will react differently. But, in general, certain age groups are prone to certain feelings:
- Preschoolers tend to worry about who will take care of them
- School-age children worry about their own death or the death of the other parent
- Teens often feel guilty and worry that they're somehow to blame
To an adult, such worries may seem somewhat simple or easy to calm. To children, however, these fears and emotions are real and excruciating. The fact that the remaining parent and other family members are doing their own grieving makes dealing with this experience that much more difficult.
1. Show your grief and your healing. Kids look to adults to figure out how to behave. If grown-ups, especially the surviving parent, can show grief, kids will often follow suit. An open display of feelings – from crying to laughing about a funny memory – is necessary for healing, and it lets kids know that they're not alone in their grief. If an adult is highly emotional, though, it may be best to set some limits on the display of feelings. Kids also need to be shown they don't have to be sad forever. Be sure they know that getting back to the things they used to do doesn't mean they're disloyal to Mom's memory. Explain to your child that, with time, the grief will fade – and that's okay. Also explain that those sad feelings may surface from time to time, for a long time, and when she least expects it, and that's okay, too.
2. Reassure them, but tell the truth. As hard as it is to accept, children need to know that death is final – the parent is never returning. Assure children that there'll always be someone to care for them, and tell them who that person is, even if it seems obvious. Kids also need to know how and why the parent died. If your nephew asks how his mother died, you can explain, "Your Mom's body just couldn't live with the disease anymore," which is the truth. Finally, if you don't know the answer to something, say so; if kids sense that you're not being honest, they may stop asking questions.
3. Be there. Grief is scary and lonely. The surviving parent, a close family member or friend should be consistently available to offer help and encourage a child to share sadness and memories. It's also important to keep the household running as smoothly as possible to give kids a sense of stability.
4. Avoid confusing language. It's okay to tell a child his father has "gone to heaven," but you'll have to be clear that it's not like a regular trip and that he can't come back. If you say that you've "lost" your husband, your daughter may wonder why you're not looking for him. "Resting peacefully" can frighten kids into thinking that they'd better not fall asleep because they may not wake up, or that the surviving parent may not wake up either.
Kids often retreat into themselves, trying to insulate against the reality of death. But grieving, and reactions to the grief, will come in time. Here's what you can expect when that happens, and what you can do to make the process a little less painful:
Understand the stages of grief. To help children with their sadness, fear, confusion and despair, it's important to expect and recognize the grieving stages that most people go through when a loved one dies. These stages include:
- Shock and disbelief. When kids hear about the death of someone close to them, they feel like their whole world has changed. A child may feel like crying but be unable to. He may feel numb, frightened or confused. He may be surprised, or even angry, when most things happen as they did before, even though this terrible thing has happened.
- Anger. Children may be angry with the surviving parent for not being the one to die, angry at themselves for not saying goodbye, or angry with siblings for not feeling as badly as they do. They could even be angry at the dead parent for abandoning them or not fighting harder against death.
- Bargaining. Even though they know it's not rational, they may say things like, "If I'd been there, I wouldn't have let Daddy die," or "If I hadn't said I hated her, Mommy wouldn't have died." Explain that the death isn't their fault.
- Depression. A period of depression, whether short or long, always follows a major loss. Kids often experience common symptoms of depression, such as sleeping problems, despair and lack of interest in school or friends.
- Acceptance. Children won't get over the death, or forget the parent. But they will eventually get through the stages of grief and reach a level of understanding and acceptance.
Expect reactions to the grief. As they go through these stages, children's reactions often result in:
- Loss of interest in daily activities
- Inability to sleep or eat
- Feeling afraid of being alone or not wanting to leave the remaining parent
- Feelings and displays of anger toward surviving family members
- Acting younger than their age
- Imitating the dead person
- Talking about wanting to join the dead person
- Not wanting to go to school
- Doing poorly at school
As kids heal, these reactions subside. If they persist, it's best to talk to a professional for guidance. When kids know that it's okay to miss their mother and to talk about her, they'll open up more willingly and be able to work through their grief.
Help children remember. Talking about Mommy and what it's like to miss her will help the child. But honoring a parent can also help the healing. There are many meaningful ways to remember: lighting a candle, saying a prayer, making a scrapbook or a journal, looking at pictures and telling stories about the dead person can be helpful. Kids need to know death is permanent so they won't hold out false hopes. "Even though we wish she could, Mommy won't ever come back. Remember we talked about how dying means a person's body stops working? Mommy can't come back because her body doesn't work anymore." Let him know that thinking about or talking about his Mom is okay and that being angry or sad is normal.
Help children live again. Kids may need permission to feel better, have fun and laugh again. Be sure they know you want them to recover and that joy and fun are normal, healthy things. Tell them not to feel guilty for being happy. Positive emotions can strengthen them for the moments of sadness and pain still to come.
Explain that grief is complicated. Children should also be told that the grief process isn't straight and narrow: A person can feel fine one day and horrible the next. The pain can be intense, but it won't remain constant. Accepting death doesn't mean forgetting about the person – it means keeping memories alive and moving on.
What can I tell my kids when they ask me why their mother died?
If she died of natural causes, this answer should be sufficient: "Mommy died because her body stopped working. Her body won't do any of the things it used to do, like talk, walk, see or hear. The body parts don't work anymore, and she doesn't feel anything anymore." Older children and teens may want more specific information, such as which disease killed their mother. Try starting with general explanations; kids will ask you for more information if they want it. If you don't know the answer to something, say so.
My son doesn't want to go to his mother's funeral. How should I handle this?
Never force a child to attend a funeral. It's okay if your son doesn't want to go. Some adults worry that a child will regret not going to the funeral, but for some kids – especially young children – seeing a group of grieving adults or a coffin may be scary and confusing. On the flip side, if he wants to go, let him. A funeral can give a much-needed sense of closure. Telling your son what to expect at a memorial service, wake or burial can help him decide whether or not he wants to go.
How much should I tell my daughter when she asks about what's going to happen to her father now that he's died?
How you answer this question depends on your religious beliefs, the circumstances of your husband's death and his wishes. It also depends on your daughter's maturity level and your judgment about how well she could understand the information. You can discuss the concepts of what happens after death, such as heaven. Or you can focus on events. You might explain: "Daddy will be taken from the hospital to a funeral home, where he'll be dressed in some clothes he liked. Then he'll be put into a casket. His body will be lying down in the box, looking pretty much the way it always did, when it's put into the ground. At the funeral, people will talk about him, and probably cry. Then we'll go to the cemetery where he'll be buried in the ground."
What should I say if my daughter asks, "Are you going to die, too?"
You should tell your daughter that everyone dies eventually, but that there will always be someone there to take care of her. Reassure her by saying: "Sometimes, people get very sick or they're in a bad accident and they die. But most people don't die until they're very old. I don't expect to die until then."
Your program is here to help you along the journey of life. No situation is too big or too small. When you and your household members need assistance, reach out anytime and we will help get you on the right path to meet your needs.
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