Grief. That word alone sounds heavy. But what is grief? To put it in simple terms, it’s the oh so many different feelings you can experience when someone close to you dies – those gut-wrenching, tears flowing, mind-numbing, overwhelming feelings.
Grief is bigger than words and cannot often be adequately described. It cannot be generalized because no two journeys will be the same. Coping with death does not follow a simple pattern or set of rules. It is such a difficult and personal time.
Grief becomes even more complicated if you’re supporting your child as they cope with the same loss. Your family’s grief may seem out of sync – adults and children process and manage grief at different times. Grief in children can be hard for parents to understand as children can be sad and crying one moment then be happy and laughing the next.
It’s not easy, but there are a few ways to help your child deal with grief.
When explaining death, it’s important to be simple and concrete. Try not to say, “passed away” or “gone to sleep.” Depending on your child’s age, this may cause more confusion and fear.
Explain to them that “dead” means that the body has stopped working and will never work again. The body cannot move, breathe, think, feel, see, smell or talk. Reassure your child that once the body stops working, it does not feel pain, hunger or fear.
Kids are literal. It’s important to provide accurate, concrete information. Here are ‘four Cs’ that may help you answer their questions and explain death to your child:
- Did I cause it?
- Can I catch it?
- Can I cure it?
- Who’s going to care for me?
Ensure kids have the chance to talk about their feelings, but don’t force it. Don’t try to fix their pain; let them know that all feelings are okay. Even though there are no right or wrong ways to grieve, there are helpful choices and associated behaviours. Encourage and role model healthy ways to deal with grief, such as talking with trusted friends, journaling, creating art, and expressing emotion rather than holding it inside.
Continue to include children in special activities and rituals. Help them cherish memories and create traditions honouring the person at special times. Find and offer opportunities to connect with other children in similar situations.
And if this is your child’s first funeral, prepare them. Explain what they might see and what is expected, including people, customs and rituals.
Warning signs to watch for
Finally, there are warning signs to know when your child might need more support, including:
- chronic physical symptoms without obvious cause
- persistent denial of death
- no signs of grief
- ongoing sleep disturbances
- prolonged changes in typical behaviour
- ongoing concerns about the ‘four Cs’
- self-harming or suicidal thoughts and behaviours
If you see any of these signs, be sure to consult with your family doctor.
Do you have any more information about helping a grieving child? We would love to hear from you.
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For parenting information or to speak with a Public Health Nurse (every Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) simply dial 311 or 905-825-6000.
Great post, Cynthia. I like your point about preparing children for what they might see and experience at a funeral. When my grandfather, who had been living in my household, passed away, I explained to my 4- and 6-year olds that Mommy might be sad and even cry at the funeral, and that this was OK. I didn’t actually expect to be too emotional as my grandfather was quite elderly, ill, and had lived a full and productive life. His death was not unexpected. As it turned out I became very tearful so I was glad to have warned my young children! And it was a good lesson to me and them that how one processes grief can be unpredictable.
Hi Janet, so sorry for your loss. You not only shared with your kids what to expect at the funeral but also reassured them that this was okay. That is a really good point to remember. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.
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