When you are faced with the death of someone you love, it is natural to struggle when coping with your emotions. You may feel distressed, shaken, and preoccupied. You might also seek isolation to cope with your own grief. But if you have children, remember that — perhaps more than ever — they need your support at this time. Their presence is a good reminder of the important people in your life that make it beautiful.
Depending on the age and the maturity level of a child, their reaction to the death of a loved one varies. As a child ages and matures, there will be times when they will revisit the memory of losing a loved one. It is important that you provide support during this difficult time.
For you to have a clearer picture of how children feel and react to the loss of someone who’s been a significant part of their life, we’ve provided an overview based on their age.
Do not underestimate the ability of infants and toddlers to feel a loss. Although they might still not have the ability to understand what’s going on, they can comprehend loss through the absence of someone they’ve gotten used to spending intimate times 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, double your efforts in cuddling and holding them — this helps give a feeling of security and love despite the absence of someone.
Children at this age might have difficulties differentiating reality from fantasy, and even more so, the permanence of death. You might feel that using euphemisms to explain the situation to your child may be helpful, but that is not the case. Using terms such as “gone away,” “sleeping,” or “lost” might confuse your young child and could give them fears or negative thoughts. For example, if a young child is told that a deceased loved one has “gone away,” it might make him/her feel abandoned or rejected. A young child might also think that it’s probably his/her fault. If you tell them that the person in the casket is only “sleeping,” they might have fears about not waking up again when they sleep at night. When talking to your child about the death of a loved one, it is best to be honest and use simple and direct words that they can understand.
At this stage, children are more likely to understand abstract concepts such as death. They are also at a point when they have more knowledge about how the body works, so be prepared for specific questions they might have. It is very important that your answers are always factual and specific. They 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 — so give them sufficient opportunities to have conversations with you so they can express their feelings of pain and grief.
Because of their growing independence, teenagers usually feel the need to keep their feelings of grief to themselves to show the people around them that they’re grown up and can control how they feel. But because this is most often not the case, they are more likely to engage in high-risk behavior because they are unable to properly express their feelings, especially after the death of a loved one. Although they might feel more comfortable talking to their peers and friends, do not feel disappointed. If anything, this will help them open up their feelings and will make way for healing. This doesn’t mean that you no longer talk to them. Create opportunities where you can talk about the loss, listen to their concerns, empathize with them, and assure them that you are there to help them cope.
Helping a child learn to cope with death and grief, especially when dealing with your own loss, can feel overwhelming. Children’s Grief Center of New Mexico provides free support services for children, teens, young adults and their caregivers after the death of a loved one, including peer support groups, Camp Corazon, and activities that help them learn coping skills and how to keep the memory of their loved one alive. To learn more, visit childrensgrief.org or call them at 505-323-0478.