The loss of a parent or close family member is difficult at any age. It can be especially confusing for young children since they can’t really grasp the concept of death. For children under 5, some child development experts have labeled losing a parent as a traumatic loss. As a parent, you are also dealing with feelings of loss in the family while trying to support your child/children.
As adults, we may tend to think we should protect or minimize what happened in front of children. On the contrary, it’s best to be as open and honest with your child as developmentally appropriate. Here are a few guidelines to support you and your child.
In some events a parent or family member may be terminally ill. While young children cannot understand the concept of death the way adults do, you can still prepare your child. In small daily conversations you can talk about how a flower or pet died and you didn’t get to see them again. You can also find age appropriate books for young children that explain in pictures and storylines what happens to animals and humans when they die and are buried.
Be open and honest with your child when death occurs. Use simple, but clear, language to explain what happened; “Nanna was very ill and she died last night, we won’t be seeing her again. I feel sad about it”. Older children can get a bit more detail to help them understand; “Remember when your goldfish died? Animals and people die sometimes.” This may sound harsh, but using words like “passed away”, “lost” or “sleeping” are vague and confusing to young children. They may also cause your child anxiety or fear to go to sleep or let others sleep.
Hearing about death can be scary for kids. Your child may feel guilty or to blame if they were misbehaving, or if there was an argument with the deceased before the death. Let your child know it was not their fault, explain that Grandpa loved her and was not upset with her, he was very ill and his body couldn’t work anymore. Your child is also likely to experience separation anxiety and be fearful if you leave them at daycare, or alone in a room. Try to be patient, let them know you will come back and pick them up at the time you always do. Children also worry about their own death or losing a parent. Let your child know that they are young, healthy and strong; “Uncle Adam was old and his body was very ill”. Assure your child that you are there and healthy.
Talk About Feelings
Feelings can feel magnified and difficult to untangle for young children. Your child may start to act out in anger or tantrums or experience some changes in behavior. Help them label the feelings they’re having; “I can see you’re angry. Do you miss Papa? Come give me a hug, that will make us both feel happier”, or “I see you’re very quiet. Do you want to tell me what you’re thinking? I was just thinking of Auntie Mona myself today when I got some flowers”.
Also let your child know that not all feelings are difficult. It’s important they know it’s OK to be happy and play while others may be mourning; “Uncle Adam loved to hear you play the piano. How about playing some? It makes us both happy to hear you”.
Keep Your Routine
Death of a close family member can cause disruption in a child’s life in multiple ways, especially losing a person that was part of daily or weekly experiences. Children need comfort and security during this time. One way is to maintain your routine with your child. Take them to sport’s practice or to a play date, if you can. Keep your daily routine around the house and do things together. Repetition can be comforting for young children, so don’t be surprised if they want you to read the same story over and over again. Try to be available for your child for extra hugs and cuddles, and spend some extra special time together. Young children benefit immensely from physical and emotional availability.
Be Ready for Questions
Dealing with the death of someone close can take days, weeks or months for young children. It really depends on the situation and child. However, you’re very likely to keep getting recurring or new questions during this time while they try to make sense of it. Your child may ask
what happens after death. The answer to this is up to your beliefs as a family, and you can let them know whatever thought comforts you. Your child may also ask strange questions such as, “Is Grandma sad?” Try to answer gently but honestly.
Remember that you are also dealing with this loss. It’s okay to let your child know that you are also sad, but maintain a balance so that your child doesn’t become the emotional caregiver in the relationship. If you feel overwhelmed, ask friends or family for support or seek professional help to support you through the crisis and mourning period.