A pivotal moment in our life is when we first encounter death. We are not born knowing how to grieve; it is something we discover through experience. Everyone grieves in a different way and what works for some won’t work for others. But that doesn’t mean we can’t prepare for grief and discuss it openly with our kids. Children grieve in many different, sometimes counter-intuitive ways. Here are some ways you can start that conversation at an early age and prepare your child for dealing with grief later in life.
Leading by Example
The late Fred Rogers is someone we can look up to when it comes to having difficult conversations with children. Mr. Rogers was a master of Emotional Intelligence (EI) and an expert on talking to children. He never shied away from heavy subjects like death and strongly believed that children learn best when these topics are met head-on.
In one episode, when his goldfish dies, he uses the moment as an opportunity to openly discuss the emotional impact of death. He shares memories and feelings he experienced when his pet dog died. At no point does he tell children the right way to grieve, because there is no one right way. Instead, he leads by example and discusses his own grieving process. He acknowledges that the sadness from that loss stayed with him throughout his life, but he recognizes this as an inevitable part of life and something we have to become comfortable with. Ultimately, he says, “The very same people who are sad sometimes are the very same people who are glad sometimes.” He masterfully demonstrates the EI principle that all emotions are valid and sadness is just as important to acknowledge as happiness.
Children Grieve Too
It can be difficult, however, to know exactly how to acknowledge this complex emotion when talking to a child about grief. In such a pivotal moment, children are prone to express many different emotions because they don’t understand death or how to react to it. Children can feel guilt, thinking their actions in some way contributed to the death. It’s helpful to reassure them that the death is not their fault and that they did not do anything to cause it. Children might feel anger, even sometimes directed towards the person who died. This is a natural emotional reaction to losing someone or a special family pet and not knowing how to process it. If a child is expressing anger, it’s important to talk to them about ways to express their anger that doesn’t harm others or themselves. The Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media recommends punching a pillow or sofa cushion and I’ll add letting out a scream in the privacy of their home to that.
Another normal emotion children often experience is feeling confused because they don’t understand the inevitability and finality of death. Patiently and lovingly answering all of their questions can help them resolve any confusion they might be experiencing. Or they may not react at all (often because they don’t understand the finality of death and are trying to cope with it by proceeding as normal). When children grieve, it can be helpful to tell them that if they do start to feel more difficult emotions you’re there to answer any questions, support them and listen to what they want to talk about.
What We Say About Death Matters
Psychology Today published a great article, The Do’s and Don’ts of Talking with a Child about Death, which has many recommendations for talking to your child after a loss. One thing that’s important to prioritize when having these conversations is the language you use. If your child is young, this is likely their first encounter with the concept of death. That’s especially why it is important not to confuse them or give them the wrong idea about what death means. Instead of saying things like the deceased “went to sleep”, “crossed over,” or “passed away,” which to a child might imply that they could return some time or wake up, instead use concrete words like “death” and “died” when speaking to them about the physical body of the deceased.
Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital provides this perfect example of what to say to a child who has lost a loved one. Their example is, “Grandpa died because his heart was sick. It got so sick that it stopped working.” This is perfect because it demystifies the heavy, abstract concept of death using concrete, simple language. A child can probably understand what a heart is and why we need it to live. A child can also probably understand that sickness is natural and unavoidable. Hopefully, this phrase will leave little room for confusion about what happened, but children are often very curious and want to understand why things like death happen.
When You Don’t Have all the Answers
Another thing you’re likely going to encounter is a lot of questions from your child. Answering these questions honestly is so important, even if they keep asking the same questions. And if you don’t know the answers to their questions a good response might be, “That’s a good question and I’m also curious about that.” When children grieve, it comes in many forms and has no expectable schedule, so it’s something that may take a long time to recover from. Continuing normal routines your child is familiar with, making art projects about memories of the deceased, and reaching out within your community for support if the need arises are all going to be helpful, but nothing can bring your loved one back. The grief may always be there and it’s about learning to live with that. Most importantly, you don’t want the emotions associated with grief to consume your psyche or endanger your well-being.
EI is imperative in these situations because it allows us to acknowledge emotions with more objectivity. Instead of letting our emotions dictate our reactions to grief, having high-EI and especially emotional self-control can allow us to find comfort in unpleasant emotions. It’s good to share with your child what you’re feeling and talk to them about ways you handle your difficult emotions and then role model those skills for them. For example, talk to your child about how you implement self-care in your day to help with feeling sad. You might look at photo albums of all the good memories you experienced with the loved one who died, or do a 5-minute breathing exercise to calm your emotions. This could be a great time to do a parent/child meditation or yoga session. If they’re not interested in joining your activity, it’s still good for them to see you take care of yourself. And then it can be helpful to brainstorm ideas to help them figure out and become aware of what self-care helps them. Maybe a sudsy bubble bath is just what they need in the moment.
Books can be a great resource for parents out there who feel like they don’t have all the answers. Death is a tough subject to approach with anyone, especially a child who may not know what is going on. Many authors have approached this subject in child-friendly ways that can help begin or add on to your conversation. This great list from Bergen County Grief Counseling should be a great place to start. Hopefully some of these are available at your local bookstore or library. Another great title is the “What We Feel” book from the Hoppy & Poppie store. It teaches children to be comfortable with being asked about how they feel and encourages them to respond honestly. Patoo, the flying blankie takes Hoppy & Poppie PinkCheeks on a journey of feelings, asking them “Now what do you feel?” on each stop along the way.
A final quote from Mr. Rogers that is particularly pertinent is when he said, “There is one thought that I feel can be helpful to grown-ups and children alike: Sadness isn’t forever. I’m not suggesting that we remind ourselves of this in order to lessen our grief. On the contrary. The knowledge that time does bring relief from sadness and that sooner or later there will be days when we are happy again may allow us to grieve more fully and deeply when we need to.”
In three words, Mr. Rogers manages to sum up an incredibly meaningful lesson in EI; we need to make space for all our emotions, even the painful and unpleasant ones. Happiness is meaningless without sadness and vice-versa. Grief is a powerful force, reminding us what is truly important in our lives and to give thanks for all the wonderful things in our lives. And while this may be a difficult thing for a child to fully understand, children grieve and feel many of the same things that we feel when we lose someone important to us. Starting that conversation at an early age can give a child a lifelong appreciation of the complexity of human emotions.
Hopefully this article can help those out there who are dealing with grief and don’t know how to discuss it with their children. Leave a comment with your stories if you have one to share!
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