10 ways to help kids through death and grief
It’s one of the hardest things for us to grapple with, and even harder for our kids – death, dying and the associated avalanche of big feelings. Death brings up feelings of mortality, it makes us feel scared – it reminds us of how scarily uncertain things are. A child’s response to grief can vary depending on their age, personality and their relationship to the person, or animal, who died. It can be hard for us to help our kids work through grief when we ourselves are grieving or struggling. So here are 10 simple ways you can help them, which will also sneakily help you.
1. Keep routine
As hard as it can feel, keep as much of a routine as you can. Bedtime routines such as bath, book, bed can be helpful reminders of the nature of time but can also remind us of what we can control, what goes on and what’s normal.
2. Be flexible and let go what you need to let go
Be kind to yourself and your family. If you need to ‘let go’ of things – do it. Get take away, skip the extracurricular activity, don’t worry about the footy fundraiser. Just do what feels good in the moment.
3. Use simple, but honest language around death
Be clear, kind and direct. Something like "I have some sad news to tell you. Pop died today”. Explain what happened “his body shut down and stopped working”. Then let them know they are safe “you are safe, your body is strong and working well”. Let them ask the questions they need, and answer them as honestly as you can. Every child reacts in their own way – some may cry, ask questions, others may seem to not react at all. Any reaction is okay. Just be together, create space and be there. Do not be afraid to say “I don’t know”.
4. Help them put feelings into words by role modelling
Try and help kids to express their feelings by role modelling your own feelings. This makes it easier for them to navigate big, sometimes overwhelming feelings. Something like “I am feeling really sad, as I loved Pop. I know how special Pop was to you and you were to him – I wonder if you are feeling sad too?”. This invites feelings and lets them know they can feel what they need to feel. Resist the urge to say you are fine!
5. Let your kids know what to expect and what might change for them
Kids are naturally egocentric – they wonder how THEY will be impacted, how their world will change. Let them know if their routine may change, if who they see for a while may change and prep them for the funeral if they will be attending. For example “we are going to have a celebration for Pop’s life, lots of people who loved and knew Pop will be there. People may cry, and hug and they might want to talk to us – you can stay with me the whole time”.
6. Give your child a role, something they can do to feel in control
This may be a role at the funeral like picking a song, or some flowers, or making something or it might be something like helping with dinners, helping with jobs around the house or looking after the pets.
7. Work out together how your child would like to remember the person or animal
You can decide together how you want to remember them – it might be a plant in the garden, or a picture, or a special ornament.
8. Don't avoid talking about the person or animal who died
Share sad and happy moments. Laugh at happy memories. Bring these in to everyday activities – things like “Pop would have loved this bakery, he loved chocolate donuts!”.
9. Be patient with them, and yourself
Grief brings up waves of emotions that can take time and can change our behaviour. Kids often use play and repetition to process their feelings and understand events – they may go over and over the same questions and details to help them understand. Be patient, even if it’s painful for you. Be patient if their behaviour regresses or is challenging. But also, be patient with yourself if it’s harder for you to be patient. Kindness all around!
10. Get more help if needed
If your child needs it and they, and you, are still struggling after a few weeks, check in with your doctor and think about seeing a therapist who can help them navigate the loss and what it means to them.
As we know, time can help heal most wounds. Hopefully these tips will help your family start to navigate the waves, and challenges, that come with grief.
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Written by Dr. Lauren Moulds, Principal Psychologist, Big Little Steps Psychology for Brave and Able