By Sharon Muscett
Over the last 9 years I have worked alongside thousands of individuals experiencing the realities of death, giving me privileged insight into how to cope with grief and loss. Many of these individuals are children, who have lost a family member. What astounds me with children is their bravery and acceptance when handled in the right manner. Therefore what to say and do, when a family member has died, is most important.
Here is some guidance to help you talk with your child about the death of a family member.
Tell the truth to your child about what has happened, and sooner rather than later. This will help the child to understand why they are seeing sadness and tears around them.
Using words such as ‘died’ or ‘dead’ is much better than saying, ‘passed away’ or ‘gone to sleep’. This helps with their grieving process.
Show your feelings to your child. This is crucial that they see your sadness as well. They are learning about loss from you.
Allow your child to express their feelings to you. Be prepared for a variety of emotional responses. We all grieve differently. Tell them they may feel all sorts of things – sad, angry, upset, confused – and it may be for a while. Tell them that is ok and they can share that with you whenever they feel like it.
Take time to answer any questions they have. Be prepared for questions like ‘Why did they die?’ Answer simply and honestly, for example ‘Grandpa’s heart stopped beating’ or ‘Grandpa got old and he died’.
It’s ok to answer ‘I don’t know’ to questions they may ask. It is not easy to have all of the answers.
Tell them it’s ok to cry. Cry together. It is healing. Tell them they are ‘tears of love’ for the person who has died. Coming from that place of love makes a fundamental difference to them.
Spend time with your child and focus on the love you have for the person who has died. Share stories and memories with one another. Even ones that will make you both laugh. It can be a bonding time, and a healing time.
If they like writing, buy them a journal. I call it a ‘love journal’. Encourage them to write about their feelings, write stories of things they used to love doing with their loved one. They can express how they are feeling. It is their personal journal.
DO NOT hide your feelings from them. It is natural that you would want to protect your child but seeing your reaction will show them it is normal and healthy to cry and feel sad. They are learning from you about loss.
DO NOT hesitate tell them. Again it is natural to want to protect them, but this will leave them confused when they see your sadness and tears and they do not understand why.
DO NOT sugarcoat what has happened. Don’t use words like, ‘passed away’ or ‘crossed over’ or ‘sleeping’: the latter will set about future concerns for going to sleep, or they may expect them to wake up.
DO NOT shut down your child’s feelings, whatever their response is. Allow them to feel safe to express their emotions with you.
DO NOT give them too much information all at once. Gauge how they are receiving the information. If needed, give it to them in short amounts to give them time to process.
DO NOT be afraid to share stories and memories of your loved one with them. It is normal you may not want to talk about the person who has died, thinking it will make them sad. In actual fact, sharing stories and memories aids in their healing journey.
DO NOT change the subject just because your child walked into the room. It is important that death is not seen as this ‘taboo’ topic. You may have to change your wording, but do not stop the conversation altogether.
DO NOT put a time limit on the grieving process – your child’s as well as yours. You as a family will all grieve in your own individual way. Understand there will be days when one family member is up,
whilst the other is down. That is ok.
I have found that children who understand that death is a natural part of life, are better prepared and better equipped to make sense of death when it happens.
As parents, our role is to help them understand as best they can. This not only brings comfort, but provides the tools to help them cope with other losses that life may invariably bring.
Sharon Muscet is one of Australia’s foremost experts on healing and loss. She is the founder of ‘The Love in Death’ movement, an award-winning thought leader, international speaker, published author and funeral celebrant. Her latest book ‘7 Life Lessons Learned Through Loss’ shares powerful stories of love, hope, transformation and legacy. Sharon is dedicated to sharing life lessons, transforming the fear of death and celebrating the power of love.