Age appropriate honesty is important. Kids know more than we think they do. If you’re not honest kids can come up with fantasized explanations of death (“I made grandma get sick and die”). Using concrete things like “X has died. Their body is no longer working” (rather than “Nana is ‘sleeping’” which can freak young kids out and lead to, “when is she going to wake up?”). You can also talk about your beliefs: “Our family believes that after someone dies you go to heaven.”
Let kids ask questions. Many adults have issues about talking about death so kids can believe it’s not okay to talk about being sad or the death. Everyone experiences death differently.
Ask kids questions and listen. “What do you think happens when you die?” “How are you feeling?” Know that sadness, anger and maybe relief are natural emotions to be feeling.
Any child old enough to love is old enough to grieve. Grieving is not a pathology that we need to “fix.” There are ebbs and flows in grieving. Also know that kids (young kids especially) can’t take a lot of intense sadness at once. If they seem really sad but then seem to be happy, that’s normal. If kids are running around laughing at the funeral remember—they’re just kids! Oh, and don’t assume that the death of a pet isn’t as upsetting as the death of a person.
How does age affect how kids deal with death? Of course it depends on the child, but generally…
- Kids under 7 don’t understand the permanence of death; they are egocentric and full of magical thinking. Things like “grandpa has gone to heaven and will look down on us” can lead to “grandpa is always watching me.”
- Kids 9-12 or so have more awareness of death and can comprehend ideas about an afterlife.
Inform the kids’ school that there’s been a death and ask they can keep an eye on your child. Kids are sensitive to being “different” so may not want to talk about death with their friends, teachers or school counselors.
Letting kids get involved can help them process their grief. Don’t force them to help; offer but don’t push (follow their lead). Decorating the cremation box (which is cardboard), shovel soil into the grave, help spread the ashes, write letters to the deceased for the coffin or cremation box, or write a story/obituary about the deceased. If they want to look at an open casket that’s okay. Ask if they want to speak at the funeral (if appropriate).
Honor the dead with rituals
- Light a candle
- Do something special on the birthday of the deceased
- Make a memory box/scrapbook of their life that you can bring out during holidays
- Tell stories about the deceased to keep their memory alive
(Here are some other we've researched)
- Make their favorite meal
- Visit their grave and bring flowers
- Watch their favorite movie, read their favorite book, listen to their favorite music
- Plant a memorial tree, buy a memorial bench
- Keep an item of clothing that they have in your closet
Lean on others (friends, family, therapists) for your own grieving. If you are not okay you can’t be present for your kids. All of the things mentioned above can also help you (e.g., rituals, processing, etc.)
Here are some more resources:
The Sesame Street Grief Toolkit
"No feeling is too big (or small) to talk about."
Child Bereavement UK
For parents grieving the loss of a child.
National Child Traumatic Stress Network
For particularly traumatic incidents.