After the passing of a loved one it’s important to be honest with children and encourage questions. This can be hard because you may not have all of the answers. It’s important to create an atmosphere of comfort and openness, and send the message that there’s no one right or wrong way to feel.
A child’s capacity to understand death and your approach to discussing it will vary according to the child’s age. Each child and situation is unique.
Often young children have a hard time understanding that all people and living things eventually die, and that its final and they won’t come back. Even after you’ve explained this, kids may continue to ask where the loved one is or when the person is returning. As frustrating as this can be, continue to calmly reiterate that the person / animal has died and can’t come back.
Children’s questions may sound much deeper than they actually are. For example, a 5-year-old who asks where someone who died is now probably isn’t asking whether there’s an afterlife. Rather, children might be satisfied hearing that someone who died is now in the cemetery. This may also be a time to share your beliefs about an afterlife or heaven if that is part of your belief system.
Avoid using euphemisms, such as telling kids that the loved one “went away” or “went to sleep” or even that your family “lost” the person. Young children think so literally, such phrases might inadvertently make them afraid to go to sleep or fearful whenever someone goes away.
Mourning can also be very painful, and because children often don’t have the words to express their grief, it may come out in their behaviour. Children may begin to cuddle with their parents more after discussions about death. Sometimes children regress while mourning, reverting to baby talk and temper tantrums. These are often the child’s way of saying they are hurting. Experts caution parents not to shut these behaviours down too quickly. The message we send to children when we say ‘stop being angry’ or ‘stop crying’ is that mourning is shameful. Children need to know that everything they feel is normal and healthy.
Whatever your child is experiencing, the best thing you can do is to encourage the expression and sharing of grief. There are many resources from books and counselors to community organizations that can provide guidance. Being open to your child’s questions will go a long way in helping them get through this difficult time.