Losing a loved one is a devastating event for anyone, but children are particularly vulnerable, as they are confused and have not yet developed coping skills.
Use everyday examples to describe death to a child. For instance, if you see a dead bug, stop, look at it and explain the bug’s body has stopped working, and that the bug has died.
A pet fish provides many teachable moments, since the lifespan is typically short and the child does not get too attached. Give the fish a funeral, explain this service is a way to say goodbye to someone we love. This introduces the concept of a funeral early on – providing significance, structure, and appreciation for life.
The most essential rule when helping a child cope with death is to be honest. Kids need to know their guardians are trustworthy. Children relate to the world through their senses, for example, “You can see Grandma is weak and moves slower, you can hear her voice is different, and you can feel she is not the same.”
Positive coping skills can be built using an “emotional tool bag.” This technique shows children the coping skills they have, teaches them new ones, and gives them a sense of control.
Books can also be a helpful resource. Talking About Death by Dr. Earl Grollman is a compassionate guide for adults and children to read together, and answers any questions they may have. Often parents want to know at what age they should they tell them. Dr. Grollman eloquently explains, “It depends on the child and the circumstances.” Even if they are quite young, if their parents or grandparents die, you have to tell them something.
Children are curious, so there will be many conversations over the years about death. Let them know no question is off limits and that you’ll guide them every step of the way. It is normal for children to be sad when they lose a loved one. Grief shows their ability to form bonds and loving relationships. Let them feel sad and assure them that they have people who can help them cope with their grief.