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Facing the death of a loved one is hard enough by itself. But when you have children, you’re tasked with being their source of comfort when you are struggling to cope with your own emotions. Our natural inclination is to shield our children from pain, but this does not mean shielding them from a healthy grief process. Children process grief differently depending on their age and maturity level. Just like adults, there’s no real end to grief, and children will revisit the memory of their loved one in different ways throughout their life. It’s important to continue to provide support. Infants and toddlers might not understand what’s going on, but they definitely feel loss. They can comprehend the absence of someone they’ve gotten used to spending time with, through an interruption to their usual routine, and through the stress and grief they sense from their parents and the people around them. To help a child at this age cope with this situation, cuddle and hold them more than usual. This gives them security and makes them feel loved in this difficult and confusing time. Children at this age have difficulties understanding the permanence of death. Don’t use euphemisms to explain the situation to your child. Using terms such as “gone away,” “sleeping,” or “lost” might confuse them and may induce fears about abandonment or rejection. If you tell them that the deceased is only “sleeping,” they might get scared of not waking up again when they go to bed at night. A young child might think that it’s his or her fault. Assure them that it is not. Read them a children’s book that talks about death, and listen to any questions they have. Be honest, use direct, age-appropriate language, and answer any questions they have. Older kids are more likely to understand abstract concepts like death. They’re also more knowledgeable about how the body works, so be prepared for specific questions they might have. It’s important that your answers are factual and specific. Children might also be more vulnerable and insecure at this time because, aside from the death of a loved one, they are also going through a lot of changes. Give them plenty of opportunities to talk with you and express their feelings.
Teenagers often feel the need to keep their feelings of grief to themselves to show that they’re grown up or to hide emotions from their peers. Their grief can take the form of acting out or risky behavior. They may turn to their friends to talk instead of you, and that’s ok. You should still be there to listen and to comfort them.
Coping with the death of a loved one is hard on the entire family. The Children’s Grief Center (links to https://childrensgrief.org/) and The Grief Resource Center (links to https://www.griefnm.org/) provide excellent support for those experiencing loss.