Ally was more than a pet cat, she was my 7-year-old daughters closest friend. She was lugged around the yard, dressed up and relentlessly hugged. Every day my daughter spent hours with Ally, so when I had the responsibility to tell my daughter that her precious cat was killed by a car, it absolutely broke my heart. That afternoon she cried, I cried and together we sat holding one another.
It has been said that “time heals all wounds,” however it’s not time that heals our wounds; rather it’s what we do during that time that heals our wounds. Here are 5 ways to help your child grieve.
- Recognize that kids grieve differently. After losing a loved one, it’s typical for children to grieve in cycles. One moment they are crying and the next moment they are playing and laughing. Children cope with death differently than adults. Therefore, in order not to be overwhelmed with grief they need to take breaks. Having fun and laughing is not disrespectful to the individual who died; it’s a vital part of grieving. Remember your child is acting very normal for a very abnormal situation.
- Encourage your child to ask questions and then answer them. Kids learn by asking questions. Sometimes they will ask the same question repeatedly until they fully grasp a concept. When someone close to them has died, adults need to be open, honest and loving. Avoid using clinical talk; rather talk in a way that a child would understand with simple, direct and clear words. Keep away from using euphemisms like “grandma passed away,” “I lost my wife” or “they went to sleep.” Phrases like this may confuse a child into thinking that someone needs to be found or fear going to sleep. Use clear simple phrases like, “I have some sad news. Grandpa died last night.” Then give them a moment to digest your words.
- Encourage your child to grieve and express their feelings. It’s healthy for kids to express the emotions that they are feeling. Help them to say what they are thinking and feeling over the next few days, weeks, months and years. It’s important to help them remember the individual they lost and let them know that the feelings that they have are normal. Express to them that you are very sad and it’s okay for them to be sad too. In addition to this, provide them additional outlets such as drawing pictures, putting together a scrapbook, looking through old photos and telling stories to express their feelings.
- Discuss life after death with your child. As a follower of Christ, we look to God’s Word to direct our understanding of the afterlife and this can be an appropriate time to discuss this with your child. Use concrete terms and avoid using abstractions. For example, you may say, “Grandpa was a follower of Jesus and now his spirit is in heaven with Grandma and God.”
- Hold a memorial service and allow your child to say goodbye. Allow children, but do not force them, to say goodbye to the individual who died. Explain to them that the purpose of a funeral is to honor the person who has died, comfort one another and grieve. If there will be an open casket then you should prepare them for that. Offer them an opportunity to participate by reading a poem, sing a song, scrapbooking some pictures or in any other way they can. Let them decide how they would like to participate.
Grief is a process that takes time. Sometimes it takes weeks, months or years. There is no set schedule or timeline as it varies from person to person. Talk to your children, encourage them to express their feelings and listen.