Knowing how to talk to your child about death or grief can feel like an insurmountable challenge, so we’ve done our homework to put together a list of 5 ways to help children process grief, even as you yourself may be grieving. We hope that, with what we’ve found, you and the child in your life can feel a little more prepared for what’s coming, and a little less alone.
Grief is Hard
For both adults and children coping with loss, only two things are for certain: everyone’s grief looks different, and everyone is changed by grief. Sometimes, grief feels like a loop. Our thoughts and feelings chase one another, never quite syncing up. Other times, our grief is an ocean, and our emotions alternate between rising and falling like waves. On Monday, our grief might feel strange; on Friday, our grief might feel devastating. There’s no right or wrong way to experience grief, and no timeline for being “done” with it – but that can feel hard to remember in the face of all the things we need to get done to make our lives work.
Grieving children face an added layer of complexity: Though the initial loss feels shocking in and of itself, they also experience many subsequent losses. Bedwetting, thumbsucking, nightmares, and problems at school are all common responses, and can make them feel like they’re “losing” the person they once were. If their parent or caregiver has died, they might change schools, neighborhoods, or even countries, foregoing the consistency and comfort of their known environments. Their friend groups might shift, or they may lose friends altogether. Depending on their identity, grief may be very multi-layered and include even more context.
When it comes to talking about grief and death, speak simply and clearly.
Because it’s so hard to know how to help your child cope with loss, dancing around the topic and using passive language can feel appealing. “He passed away in his sleep,” “she’s in a better place,” and “they’re no longer with us” are all examples of what might feel like gentler ways to talk about what’s happened. But that lack of clarity can feel even more distressing for kids, and can lead to misunderstandings that are not helpful. Instead, lean on simple and clear language that fit with your culture’s way of reckoning with loss to talk about the natural cycle of life and death. As clinical psychologist Dr. Shefali puts it, “Death is part of life. It’s happening all of the time. If we avoid death, we avoid life.”
Honor the departed by sharing memories together.
For a child who has never encountered loss before, the shock of death’s permanence can feel deeply overwhelming. Show your child that the loss of a loved one doesn’t mean they disappear from our lives by asking your child to share their favorite memories of the departed. Share photos and draw pictures together. Make new memories in honor of the loved one or that include them in the activity. Whatever you do, when you do it together, you help one another process the trauma of grief and make space for healing to take place.
Don’t be afraid to share your own feelings.
Throughout history, death has always been one of the hardest concepts to reckon with, so it’s perfectly reasonable that you may feel uncomfortable talking about loss with anyone, much less with the child in your life. However, children learn to move through situations by imitating the adults around them. When we as adults don’t acknowledge a loss that occurred, the result can be unresolved and stored grief for the children in our lives. As hard as it may be, it’s really important – and beautiful – for you to express your own vulnerability, both around and with your child. That means making sure you’re cultivating your own self-care practice in whatever ways make sense for you.
Asking for extra support is totally okay.
There are few experiences more destabilizing for young children than grief. Show your child that they aren’t alone in their bereavement, whether you’re pointing out the people in their life who are there for them, exploring resources and activities to get the conversation started, or helping them find a therapist to provide additional support.