Death is a topic that no one wants to talk about! It is a without doubt a conversation that parents do not want to have with their child, but sadly, kids will eventually have to deal with the sadness of losing a loved one.
For adults, the loss of a parent, friend, or partner is traumatic enough, however for a child, they have a very limited understanding of death and they are unable to comprehend the true meaning of the word -forever’. A preschooler often thinks that death is temporary and before long their beloved grandpa or Nana will return! After a few days, they may question why the person has not woken up and why they have not come back. If your child believes that this is the case, parents will need to guide them through the process as gently as possible and try to help them understand the finality of death.
Avoid using euphemisms
If you are dealing with the loss of a mother or a father, it’s all the more difficult for you to help your child or children to understand grief and how to deal with the loss of a grandparent, as you are dealing with your own emotions over the loss. During times of grief, families are in a state of emotional chaos, and the uncertainty coupled with the change in routine is all the more difficult for a child to cope with and to come to terms with loss.
The parent who is not as emotionally attached to the person may need to take on the role of explaining the loss to the children. Parents are urged to avoid using euphemisms for death, such as saying, -Nana has gone to a better place or -Nana is sleeping and won’t wake up! . If the child is told that their grandmother has gone to a better place, they will wonder when their Nana is coming back from this -better place’ and why has Nana gone to look for another place to begin with? If the term -sleeping’ is used, the child may be frightened to go to sleep, as they may be fearful that they will never wake up and may very well be terrified that if their parents go to sleep, they too may not wake up.
When discussing death with children, parents need to explain death as it is – the final stage of life. Parents may use their own religious references to help children to understand death and loss better, such as -Nana is in heaven now .
How to help children understand death
Sadly, death is a part of life and there are ways which parents can help kids come to terms with death.
- The loss of a family pet. When a much-loved dog or cat dies, the sad occurrence can form the basis of the discussion to help kids to understand the eventuality and finality of death.
- A story or movie in which a parent or grandparent dies (or a main character) will also provide parents with the opportunity to discuss death and find out more about their child’s feelings on the subject.
- The passing of an elderly or ill relative can become another possibility for parents to broach the subject and share their own views and feelings.
As with the discussion about the birds and bees, parents must find ways to explain death and grief to their kids and they can make use of everyday occurrences like the wilting of flowers, to explain the circle of life. It’s certainly something that we all hope never to face, but the reality is that sooner or later, a child will be faced with the loss of a grandparent, friend, pet, etc.
Ways to lessen the pain
- For a preschooler, next week is forever. Once the realisation sets in that forever is without end a few days after the loss, kids may become withdrawn or angry that granny or grandpa has not come back. The loss will be far more traumatic for a child who spent many hours with the person. In a bid to lessen the pain, encourage the child to talk about the late family member. This can be done by remembering things that happened or things that were said. Moms can start off by saying, -remember when granny baked that yummy chocolate cake for your birthday , and ask the child, what they remember about granny!
- Ask your child to help you pick out a special photograph of granny or grandpa and have it framed for their room.
- Go through songs and together, select a song that best reminds them of the cherished loved one.
- In memory of a loved one, plant a flower in the garden (or start a remembrance garden) and get the children involved.
- Encourage kids to share their emotions. Boys, particularly may want to bottle up their feelings to show that they are -big boys’ but reassure kids that crying is a natural reaction when somebody who is extra special passes away. Ask kids what they miss about the person and share your feelings on how you are feeling about the passing of your mom or dad.
When kids realise that the whole family is feeling sad and working through their own emotions and is dealing with the loss of a mom, dad, or grandparent they will feel more at ease in sharing their own feelings and thoughts.
The common stages of grief
Depending on the age of a child, the stages of grief may vary. Younger children, below the age of five will have little understanding of loss and will probably just question where the person went and when are they coming back? Younger kids may also suffer from delayed reactions, once they realise that the loss is indeed final.
Older kids may experience emotions such as:
- Shock – why did this happen?
- Denial – it is not true!
- Anger – why did they leave?
- Depression and sadness – I miss them!
When a family member passes away, the entire family is thrown into a state of turmoil and even though parents are feeling the same emotions (often compounded), they still need to help their kids through the loss and work through each and every stage of grief. When families deal with grief as a unit, it often makes it easier to arrive at a state of acceptance and remember the wonderful memories that have been left behind that can be forever cherished.