There are several articles, and one video, on this blog created specifically to help parents whose children are (or may soon be) dealing with grief and loss. They are collected below for easy reading.
- Children and Funerals
- Helping Children Grieve
- Book recs on grief/loss for kids
- Talking with children about tragedies in the news
- Video: Talking with young children about death
Please feel free to contact me with questions or to set up an appointment for parent coaching around grief and loss, or however you think I can help.
As part of my work with SWParents.org, we produced a video for parents on how to talk to your kids about death. I also share a few basic tips for understanding and responding to the various ways that children can express grief. Please take a look if you think this topic might be helpful to you or a loved one. Non-members can watch up to 10 videos or read 10 articles per month for free. The link below will take you directly to the video.
A few basic suggestions for helping your child with death and funerals.
- You are the best person to talk with your child about what has happened. You don’t need a professional to break bad news–your child would rather hear it from his parents. (although YOU might feel better if YOU talk to someone first–practicing what you’re going to say is a great idea.)
- Don’t hide the truth, and don’t delay too long before telling your child pertinent details.
- Regarding funerals, there are a lot of good reasons to allow your child to attend the funeral, including:
- Funerals are a ritual for closure and healing. Kids need this as much as adults do!
- Funerals honor the deceased. If your child was close enough to the deceased to attend the funeral, it will likely do them good to hear people speaking with love, honor and respect about their life.
- Funerals are gatherings of friends and family. Kids are a part of this group.
- The presence of children at a funeral generally serves to remind us of the circle of life, can add some breathing room to the grief–or even occasionally levity–and that’s a healthy balance.
- At funerals, adults generally feel as though they have permission to express their feelings of loss. It’s healthy for your child to witness this–it’s good role modeling–we want our kids to express their feelings, too.
- I encourage you to ask your child if they want to go, and let that be your primary deciding factor.
- A child attending a funeral needs a supportive adult nearby to answer questions, hold their hand, give them a hug, etc. A younger child attending a funeral needs an adult who can take them out of the room to run around if they need that break.
- The person who is supporting the child needs to be someone who isn’t themselves completely grief-stricken by the loss.
- If you yourself are deeply mourning, seek out support for yourself during this time of double-difficulty (your grief leaves you with fewer resources than normal, at a time when your children’s needs are greater than normal.)
- Open caskets can sometimes be an uncomfortable or strange experience for children. Again, an older child can tell you whether they want to look. Whatever their choice, support them and be prepared for questions.
- Familiarize yourself with the grief process, and remember to offer support to your child for longer than you think is probably necessary.
If you’d like to read more about children & funerals, visit this short article written by a Massachusetts psychologist.
Always & Forever, by Alan Durant, is reviewed in detail here. It is one of my favorite books about grief for kids. Highly recommended.
The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn isn’t about grief or loss, but it is a book about how hard it is to separate or say goodbye. That’s certainly a related theme when we are talking about grief with children. The main character is a raccoon who is about to start school. He’s sad and worried about leaving his mother–who teaches him a sweet, nurturing trick for self-soothing. I’ve known families that adopted the trick for themselves after reading the book. Very sweet.
The Bug Cemetery, by Frances Hill is about a group of entrepreneurial kids who stumble upon the ‘business’ of funerals. The brother and sister pair offer “bug funerals,” complete with fake mourners, eulogies, and tombstones for 10 cents. But, when their friend’s pet cat is killed, they realize that “Funerals aren’t any fun when they’re for someone you love.” The illustrator does a great job of conveying sadness, even anguish, in the children’s faces during the real funeral.
I like that this book illustrates that we can pretend to have a feeling, but that it isn’t the same as the real feeling at all. Very young children often “pretend” to mourn a relative who died before they were born–and that’s normal–but I like having a tool to show the difference. I also like the way the book shows kids ways that they can cope with death and loss–the children in the book honor their feelings and also honor the dead.
When Dinosaurs Die, by Laura Krasny Brown, is similar to their many other “When Dinosaurs…” books. It is an informative, non-fiction book on a difficult topic, somewhat cartoonish in style, that explains facts & feelings to kids, and answers their typical questions. The lack of a narrative makes it a little less interesting to children as a bedtime story, but perhaps makes it an even better choice for an older child who can read and would benefit from having a source of information under his control.
Of course there are many more, but consider this a beginning list. Please make suggestions about other books to include in this list in the comments section.
First & foremost, the best advice I can give you not only applies to this conversation, but many, many other difficult ones:
The most important thing for a parent to do in any difficult conversation is simply to BE & STAY open to communication. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you need to give your child a particular piece of information, or say a particular phrase. Parenting is never accomplished in one moment. Parenting is all about repeated experiences/events/conversations. Remember–it’s all about the RELATIONSHIP, and you want to have the kind of relationship where your children know that they can come to you to talk about difficult, awkward, or emotional topics. So: make this a “talkable moment,” be honest, calm, serious, supportive, loving, and listenlistenlisten.
That said, I know I’d want some concrete advice, too, so here goes:
Recommendations differ for different ages. The youngest children may not need any information–if they haven’t been exposed and you’re sure they won’t be, you may very well be able to avoid the topic of this event altogether. (read footnote #1)
Children typically do better when they hear difficult/emotional information from a trusted source first, so consider bringing the topic up yourself with an older child. They are likely to overhear something somewhere anyway. It’s important that they be able to get accurate, age-appropriate information from you to help them balance–or correct–what they’ve already heard.
Your child may not have a strong emotional reaction to the news–it is an abstract concept to many of them. Instead, they may be curious or confused. This is normal.
An older child/teenager may be able to understand the bigger picture and may indeed have an emotional reaction. Remember that there is a wide range of “normal” emotional responses, including anger, fear, sadness, confusion, and more.
Younger children sometimes ‘test out’ emotions, by reacting to this sort of information with stronger feeling than you might expect. This is typically a normal and healthy way for children to learn about emotion. Use your intuition with regard to whether it’s an ‘experimental’ emotional response or a sign that your child is having (too) hard of a time coping with this or other hidden problems.
It’s absolutely fine to share YOUR feelings with your child, as long as you are doing so (relatively) calmly, with role-modeling or teaching in mind. In other words, try to talk about your feelings, not demonstrate them.
Do you have to drive by the building? If your young child asks you what happened, you can say
“A plane crashed into that building today.”
With older, or more inquisitive children, you might add in more details, either intially, or as part of the conversation, including phrases like:
- A man flew a plane into that building.
- He did it on purpose.
- A man who worked there died, as did the pilot. Other people were injured.
- That building has many government workers in it, and the pilot blamed the government for his problems.
- It’s normal to feel angry, even very angry sometimes, but it’s not normal to act out feelings like that. He has hurt many, many people with his choices.
Tune in to what is ‘behind’ your child’s questions. What sounds like a request for more information may actually be your child’s indirect request for reassurance. They may need to hear that: they are safe; such acts are actually rare, that planes/buildings/Austin are all safe places for them, and that you will keep them safe.
Be prepared for questions to come up again later, even much later, and at odd times. As children develop, so to does their ability to understand the world. They may “re-process” this information in 6 or 12 or 24+ months, and need to talk about it with you again. Just be patient and loving and remember to focus on open communication. (footnote #2)
FYI, some of the signs of a child who is having serious problems adjusting can include: persistent somatic complaints, problems sleeping or eating, inability or disinterest in normal/previously enjoyable activites, depression/sadness most of the day more days than not, talk or hints of suicide or worthlessness. If you see these signs, please consult with a professional right away.
#1. But. Please don’t avoid talking about death in general, okay? It’s much easier for children to grasp the concept when they get to learn it abstractly, not while also processing a serious personal loss.
#2. Also, hold your precious babies close tonight. I’m doing that, and also sending a little loving light in the direction of the children and grandchildren of (all) the victims and the pilot’s 12 year old daughter, too.
Always and Forever by Alan Durant is a child’s picture book about death, grief, and moving on. It’s very much the sort of book that I like to review here. But this review came about completely accidentally, and the surprise ultimately made me like it even more.
I sometimes check out kids’ books from the library with a minimum of attention to the content of the book. If the cover looks good, I open to the middle. If those pages don’t have too many words, and the illustrations are decent, the book goes in to my stack. My librarian readers are probably cringing now. :^)
So, due to my neglectful vetting, I sat down to read this book to my daughter today without a clue of what it was about. I figured it out as soon as I looked at the inside dust jacket, and had a moment’s pause. Our family dog died a month ago, and we talked about death and grief a lot then, but a story about death and grief seemed out of place today.
But I believe that one of the shortcomings of our modern culture is that we fool ourselves into thinking that death is rare and predictable. It is neither, and I want my daughter to know the vocabulary, and the concepts (especially that things get better!) about death before she has to experience death with an emotional component (there’s a big difference in the emotional impact of reading a book about death and having someone you love die.) So I read the book. And then I wrote this blog entry. ;^)
I’ve heard many parents of young kids say that they want to protect their children from the ills of the world. Actually, I’ve probably said it myself–it’s a pretty common and reasonable parenting belief. But, death isn’t really an “ill” of the world. Death is a normal part of life, and I was reminded that it’s the surprise of death that can sometimes be most painful.
When I teach parents about how to talk with their kids about sex (see my other blog) I talk a lot about the importance of giving the youngest kids the vocabulary to identify their body parts and functions. I remembered this as I was reading Always and Forever earlier today. I felt like I was giving the structure/framework of the “concept of death” to my daughter. Not as fun as some of our favorite books, but I was glad I did anyway. Check it out from your local public library or click below to look at it on amazon.
(note: I originally wrote this several months ago but it somehow didn’t get published, so I’m putting it up now.)
Today’s post is written by author & therapist Victoria Hendricks.
No parent wants to use the words “child” and “death” in the same sentence. But life doesn’t always honor our wants. In the best circumstances we can introduce children to death gradually. We can talk to the three year old about the difference between the live ant that crawls and the dead ant that lies still and stiff. We can have a sad, sweet funeral for the gold fish with the kindergartener.
Sometimes though, death doesn’t give us time to prepare children gently and gradually. Sometimes a beloved uncle dies of a sudden heart attack, a friend is killed by a car, or a parent is diagnosed with a life threatening disease and then succumbs. What can we do for our children then, when we are hurting and in shock and they need information and support, right then?
When my daughters were five and nine, their daddy died of cancer within nine months of diagnosis. The bad news is that, even with training as a grief counselor, I could not spare them pain and after effects of that loss. The good news is both of them feel that they understood what was going on with their daddy and his death and that they felt loved and safe, even when very sad.
So what is helpful when the bottom falls out and you and your children are faced with the unspeakable?
Tell the truth. Tell it in simple, age appropriate terms, but don’t sugar coat. Euphemisms are confusing. Especially avoid any likening of death to sleep, so children won’t become afraid of sleep. Explain the “why” of the particular death accurately because children tend to blame themselves even when that doesn’t seem reasonable at all. Truth fights that tendency. Tell your truth about the spiritual aspects of death too. You can say that others believe differently, but telling a story one doesn’t believe isn’t helpful.
Answer questions as many times as they ask. Sometimes children need many repetitions, and they definitely need to hear about their losses at different developmental stages over the years, so that their understanding can develop with them.
Remember grief comes in a wave form that hits cyclically. That’s true for all of us, but for little children the waves hit close together and emotions shift quickly. It’s completely normal for a five year old to be weeping inconsolably and then in ten minutes, be laughing and chasing a friend. Remember anger as well as sadness is part of grief and let your child know that too and have safe outlets for anger. Let your child know that all feelings are normal and feelings pass.
Develop rituals that work for you and your child, whether telling a story, lighting a candle, or going to a grave site. It doesn’t matter what you do, but that you and the grieving child do something together that opens conversation about the loss and allows you to share it.
Be clear with your child that she or he will be taken care of no matter how sad you are and no matter how hard things get.
Take care of yourself. Use your own support system. Your child needs you strong. Love truly is stronger than loss in the end, or so it has seemed in my life, but loss hurts and we don’t need to pretend it doesn’t in order to protect and nurture our children.
Victoria Hendricks is an author & therapist in central Austin, with a private practice specializing in individual & couples. Victoria helped me get my start in private practice, and is a mentor to me still, so I’m very excited to be able to include this post from her today. If you’re interested in more from Victoria, you can call her work number: 458-2844, or email her at: seastarvsh AT aol DOT com.