Unless your family has experienced the recent loss of someone special, you may not have yet taught your young child about death, dying or grief. Talking about end-of-life issues can be awkward, uncomfortable, and well, sad, for people of all ages, and most parents wish to avoid topics that will upset their child.
Tips For Dealing With Loss
If you are ready to tackle the topic of death with your young child, here are a few tips compiled by Julie Waldron, MA LLP, Grief Counselor.
Before a loss occurs:
- Watch for teachable moments in your child’s literature or movies. Use the examples provided by story characters to teach your child what death or dying means.
- When you and your child see an insect or another creature dead in nature, take a moment to notice and explain it.
- Use simple, concrete terms. Pause and ask your child if he or she understands before moving on.
- Remember that children learn by repetition. A child of any age will benefit most from many conversations over time, not just one big “tell all” without a chance to revisit the topic.
- Encourage your child to come to you if he or she hears talk among friends or on television. Let your child know that you can handle his concerns, emotions or questions.
- Many children and teens will welcome the conversation with an adult they trust, because death, dying and grief are difficult subjects to wrestle with, no matter what the age. Remember that your child will likely follow your lead and will open up if you show concern and interest.
Breaking The News To Your Child
If you need to tell a child that someone special has died:
- Seek a quiet time and place to share serious news with your child. Turn off the TV, put away your phone and try for time alone. If you have more than one child, attempt to tell each child individually so each is allowed his or her own reaction. If that is not possible, at least try for a private and safe space.
- Your child may have many questions or none at all. She may react with strong emotions, or seem unaffected. She may wish to stay close to you after the news (such as cuddling with you or sitting close by) or she may ask to leave the room or go play. Each child’s reaction will differ based on his or her age, personality and other factors.
- Avoid euphemisms. Try to be direct, or at least use a term that your child understands to mean “died.” For example if your child has already been taught a term such as “passed away”,” then gently remind the child that it means the same thing as “died.”
- Allow some time to pass (hours or days) and then check in with your child. “So, it’s been a few days since we last talked. What questions do you have now?” Or, “What else are you wondering about now that some time has passed?”
- Children are naturally curious. They often want to know what happened and why. If your child has questions you cannot answer right now, tell him or her that it’s an important question, and you will get back with an answer soon. Then make sure you do, so he or she knows that you can be trusted to talk about difficult topics.
- It’s okay for parents to cry in front of their children. Simply say, “I am crying right now, but I will still take care of you. I am still the parent even though I am upset.”
- Practice patience with yourself and your child. The journey of grief often takes longer than anyone expects or wants it to take.
- You do not have to do this alone! There are many wonderful resources to help explain death, dying and grief to young children. Books, websites and Journeys: a Path to Healing can be a place to start.
What Is the Journeys Program
The grief counselors at the Journeys program in Portage tackle these uncomfortable topics every day through education, support and encouragement to the caregivers of grieving children. Sponsored by Hospice Care of Southwest Michigan, Journeys is an ongoing group for children ages 5-18 who have experienced the death of someone close to them. Most children who attend have lost a parent, a sibling or a grandparent; they no longer have the option of avoiding the topic. They are living each day with the reality that someone special is gone forever.
More Information About The Journeys Program
The Journeys program is free of charge due to the generous support of our community, and it is open to any child or teen in the greater Kalamazoo area. For more information, contact Julie Waldron at (269) 345-0273 or firstname.lastname@example.org or www.hospiceswmi.org. Follow us on Pinterest here.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR:
As a grief counselor with Hospice Care of Southwest Michigan, Julie has worked with the Journeys program since it began in 2002. She has a Master’s in Counseling Psychology from Western Michigan University. She says the best part of her job is witnessing the hope and healing that comes from supporting one another through difficult times. In her free time, Julie enjoys family activities with her husband and two amazing daughters.