As adults, the subject of death can be difficult and often, frightening to most. What more, when we lose a loved one. Grief and sorrow can shake you to the very core! Now, imagine you’re a child who is just beginning to learn how to express her feelings – the knot in her stomach when she’s feeling anxious, her racing heartbeat when she discovers fear or how tears, through uncontrollable sobs reveal itself as deep sorrow. Such BIG feelings that even we adults struggle to control. How do we, as parents explain such intense and profound feelings of loss to our little ones?
Don’t Beat Around the Bush
Ashleigh Schopen, a Certified Child Life Specialist, recommends the honest truth. It is hard to find the right words to say to someone who has lost a loved one. More often than not, we try to comfort them by saying ‘I’m sure he is happier and in a better place right now.’ This might come off as a bit confusing to a child. Instead, opt to speak about reality in a safe environment. Perhaps, over a quick visit to her favourite ice cream shop or while completing a puzzle together. Be direct and explain “Your Grand Uncle has died. When people die, their bodies no longer work. They can’t eat, walk or talk.” Like every other curious child, you would likely get a reaction filled with dismay – “Why???”
If your loved one died because of a sickness, for example, Cancer, explain that Grand Uncle had Cancer, which caused a part of his body not to function normally. It is essential to give the disease a name. In this case, Cancer. Otherwise, you don’t want your little one to think that she won’t be seeing anyone who is suffering from just the common flu, anymore.
Prepare for the Funeral
You’re probably asking yourself should I bring my child to the funeral? She is such a sensitive person; would she be able to handle it? Well, that would be entirely up to the both of you. If she expresses an interest in attending, or if you must bring her along, prepare her for what will happen. For example, explain the different rituals that will take place or how there will be many people coming to see us in the next few days during the wake. Depending on whether your loved one will be buried or cremated, witnessing this can be upsetting for an adult, let alone a child. Hence, be sure to have a calm conversation with your young one. You might want to address why Grandma is in a ‘box’ and why are they lowering her into the ground?
Provide some reassurance by being a hand to hold if things get too difficult. You might find, having a little hand in yours will be just as reassuring to you as it would be to your child – a gentle reminder that life goes on. No matter how difficult, you’ll get through this together.
Once the dust settles, continue to talk about her feelings. “I know you miss Grandma. I miss her very much too. Remember your favourite chocolate chip cookies that she bakes every time we visit? Do you want to go bake some for daddy?” Talking about happy memories is crucial for the healing process.
Children’s books like Waiting for Wolf by Sandra Dieckmann help us remember that even in death, our loved ones will also be with us – in a gentle breeze, the smell of freshly baked cookies and most importantly, in our hearts. Remembering and celebrating your loved one’s life will activate positive feelings. Thus, the healing begins.
As parents, we want to protect our young ones from pain. So much so, we forget about our own. Grief is complicated, it takes time and effort to heal. No doubt you often take the role of super parent, but you need to accept and experience the different stages of grief too. Please don’t go through it alone but instead, lean on your family and friends for support. Though you may want to be an ‘adult’ in this situation, sometimes, your little supporter may be a comforting ray of sunshine when you need it the most.