How to deal with death
I lost my mother in May. It feels strange even writing those words when I still feel like I could just pick up the phone and call her. It happened during the week of Mother’s Day, and getting through that day without her felt unbearable. TulsaKids lost an avid reader too. In the eight years that I’ve written a monthly column for this publication, she had read and retained a copy of almost every one. She was an absolute light in every room she entered. She loved her children and grandchildren fiercely and my kids couldn’t have asked for a more involved Gigi. She was at every piano and ballet recital, soccer and t-ball game.
As you can imagine, there has been a lot of hurt and tears in our house over the past several weeks. As I struggled to cope with my own loss, my husband and I had to navigate what that loss means for our children as well. What we learned is that when a loved one dies, children feel and show their grief in different ways, even siblings. How kids cope with the loss depends on things like their age, how close they felt to the person who died, and the support they receive.
After reading many parenting books, blogs and experiencing this grief with my children firsthand, here are some things we found helpful for a child who has lost a loved one:
When talking about death, use simple, clear words. We found it best to break the news to our children with simple, direct words said in a caring way. We simply began the conversation with, “We have some sad news to tell you. Grandma died today.” Then we pause to give them a moment to take in our words. It was frankly the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but being direct left no uncertainty like saying she had “passed away” or “went to sleep.”
Listen and comfort. Every child reacts differently to learning that a loved one has died. Our 8-year-old daughter began crying instantly. Our 4-year-old son began asking lots of questions. When my 5-year-old niece heard the news, she didn’t seem to react at all – and according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), that’s okay. All these reactions are okay. The important thing is to stay with your child to offer hugs or reassurance. Answer your child’s questions or just be together for a while.
Tell your child what to expect. If the death of a loved one means changes in your child’s life, head off any worries or fears by explaining what will happen. For example, “Aunt Sara will pick you up from school like Grandma used to.” Or, “I need to stay with Grandpa for a few days. That means you and Dad will be home taking care of each other. But I’ll talk to you every day, and I’ll be back on Sunday.”
Put emotions into words. We’ve spent a lot of time talking and encouraging our kids to say what they were thinking and feeling. We also talk about our own feelings, hoping that it might help them be aware of and feel comfortable with theirs. If I notice my daughter being unusually quiet, I still say things like, “I know you’re feeling very sad. I’m sad, too. We both loved Gigi so much, and she loved us, too.”
Talk about funerals and rituals. The AAP suggests allowing children to join in rituals like funerals or memorial services. Both of our children attended my mother’s memorial service. Before we went, we talked about what would happen like singing, praying and talking about Gigi‘s life. We also told them that people might cry and hug. We explained that people will say things like, “I’m sorry for your loss” and how those are polite and kind things to say to the family at a funeral. We also told them that we can say, “Thank you,” in response and that they could stay near us and hold our hands if they wanted.
Give your child a role. The AAP says that having a small, active role can help kids master an unfamiliar and emotional situation such as a funeral or memorial service. We let our daughter write a letter about her Gigi and then sent it to our pastor who included it during the memorial service. We also let both kids help us pick out photos that we would use during the service. Both of these actions seemed to really help our children cope during the service.
Help your child feel better. We’ve learned that providing the comfort your child needs doesn’t mean you have to dwell on sad feelings. After a few minutes of talking and listening, we try to shift to an activity or topic that helps our kids feel a little better. We don’t avoid mentioning Gigi, but recalling and sharing happy memories seems to really help heal grief and activate positive feelings.
Give your child time to heal from the loss. We’re still working on this one. We know that grief is a process that happens over time and that healing doesn’t mean forgetting about the loved one. It means remembering the person with love, and letting loving memories stir good feelings that support us as we go on to enjoy life. Our Gigi is absolutely unforgettable and as we navigate the difficult days ahead, the most important thing is that we’ll do it together.