A close friend of your child dies unexpectedly in a horrific car crash. An aunt loses her battle with cancer. The beloved cat has to be put to sleep. A parent is diagnosed with a terminal disease.
All these are examples of ways children can encounter death for the first time.
A child’s first experience of death often comes when a pet dies. For many children, losing a beloved animal can be the most intense sadness they have felt. It’s important for parents to take a child’s feelings on this seriously, and allow them to grieve how they need to.
Depending on your child’s age, experts suggest different ways of talking about death with your child.
For the very youngest of children, from infancy up to around three years old, kids cannot understand what it means to die, but they still feel the loss. For this age, focus on providing safety and comfort and love. Use simple terms to explain the death.
Preschool children may act out their emotions. Some kids become withdrawn. Others act out and become angry or destructive, or have mood swings. Children might have stomach aches or not feel good. Again, provide support and love. Encourage your child to talk about their feelings if they are able to. At this age, children may begin to draw about their emotions.
School age children have a better understanding of death. You want to be as honest as you can. If you have a belief in the afterlife, your child may find it comforting to think that their friend who died is in heaven. If the idea of life after death is not something you believe in, it’s fine to say that we just don’t know what happens after we die or that we simply don’t exist anymore. Help them find comfort in remembering their friend or loved one. Some kids find it helpful to plant a flower or tree as a reminder of the person who died.
Teenagers may react in both childish ways and adult ways. If your teen processes things verbally, he or she may need to discuss the death over and over again. Listen to them without judgement. Others may withdraw to their rooms, play loud music, or become unusually angry. As with younger kids, encourage them to verbalize what they’re feeling.
As a parent, you want to protect your children from difficult feelings and experiences. It can feel awful to watch your child grieve someone he or she loved. As someone to whom your child looks up to, you have the ability to gently guide them through this experience.
Each person grieves in their own way. Try and give your child the freedom to express their feelings of loss, but also a space for silence. It’s okay if they don’t want to talk right away. Let them know that you are ready to hear when they want to share.
If you are grieving yourself, consider reaching out to others for support, for both you and your child. Often children slip into the role of emotional caregiver. This role reversal can be detrimental to a child’s well-being. And if, at any time, you’re concerned about your child’s grief, seek help from a therapist or counselor. They can advise you on what is normal and what may need to be looked at more closely.
Talking with a child through their first experience with mourning can be challenging. You won’t have all the answers.
The most important thing you as a parent can do is to be present for your child. They will find comfort knowing that you are there to listen, to explain, and to validate their feelings.
Talking With Children About Death | PsychCentral