Talking about the death of a loved one is possibly the hardest conversation you can ever have with a child. It’s difficult on so many levels. Putting your own pain aside, trying to find an age appropriate way to introduce a child to the concept of death poses a challenge to most people.
I know I have struggled to formulate the right words over the last few months so my kids could understand that their Pop was not going to be coming home.
It goes without saying that we’ve had a lot of painful conversations with our kids in recent times. They began last December when we first told the kids about my Dad’s cancer diagnosis and the necessity for the operation to remove his voice box. They continued as his health failed and treatment options faded away and culminated in the difficult conversation where I had to share that he was not going to make it. Followed a few days later by the conversation Nathan had with them to let them know that he had indeed passed away.
There is no easy way to have those conversations. They are raw and painful, however hard you try to soften the blow. Dealing with your own grief while comforting your kids through theirs is one of the most confronting things I have personally faced. But we have learned a few things along the way and I think the following list could assist if you ever need to help kids through grief.
1. Be honest. There is no point hiding things from your kids. By all means withhold painful details. Share age-appropriate information. But don’t lie to them. Death is a necessary part of life and they need to understand that it is natural. Of course our first instinct is to protect kids from the pain of life but continually shielding them will not help them in the long run.
If you talk to them openly and honestly about death, it will help demystify the grieving process. It will help normalise it as well as help them learn from an early age that grief and all the associated feelings that are a part of it are natural. They will learn that there is no shame in crying or in feeling sadness and it will help them understand, accept and move on more quickly.
2. Keep things age appropriate. This probably goes without saying but it’s really important to not overload kids with too much information during this period. For instance, my kids came to the funeral and saw my Dad’s coffin but they are still unaware that he was ultimately cremated. That was a concept that we didn’t think necessary to explore right now with an 11, 9 and 5 year old. It is enough for them to know and to accept that their Pop died – they don’t need to know any further details.
Likewise, I waited as long as possible to let them know that he was not going to make it. There really was no point in letting them know any sooner – it was just going to add to their anxiety. For instance, Gilbert was relieved when it was all over. In his own words, “it meant he didn’t have to worry (about Pop) anymore”. I knew he had been worrying but I had no idea he had been dealing with such a high level of anxiety for so long. So be kind and go gently with your kids.
3. Encourage them to talk about their loved one. It’s so tempting, lost amid your own pain, to shut down talk of your loved one. It really is. However it is vital that kids are able to talk about the person, ask questions about them and remember the good times they shared together. This is a necessary part of the grief process. It also means that the loved one won’t be forgotten. I know I don’t want anyone to ever forget my father – talking about him, remembering him and celebrating him honours his memory and keeps him alive in our hearts.
If you are worried about your kids, spark up a conversation with them. Ask them about a happy memory. Encourage them to talk through their feelings. Show them that it really does help to talk it out. If they see you doing it, and if they know you are okay talking about your grief and your loved one, that might just encourage them to do the same.
4. Allow them to attend the funeral. This is totally up to you but my kids all came to my Dad’s service. It never occurred to me for them not to. They were as entitled as anyone else to pay their respects and to say goodbye. Yes, seeing the coffin and everyone being upset around them was confronting but I talked to them beforehand and told them what they were going to see. Even if you don’t want them to attend, or it’s best that they don’t, at least talk to them about what’s going to happen and why it’s important. Give them the chance to have their own closure.
I can still remember not attending my grandfather’s funeral – I would have been 7 or so at the time – and I have no idea whether I was ever given the chance to attend or not. Seeing everyone return to my Nan’s house afterwards, upset and dressed in black, was confronting. Without the context of the funeral I didn’t quite understand what was going on. I still feel a vague resentment to this day that I did not attend and that I didn’t get closure. That’s a big reason why I think kids should have some say in whether they attend the funeral or not.
5. Be present and open for them. I have found this really, really hard. Basically, I have spent the last month shut within myself, trying to deal with my own grief. Outside, I’m projecting a reasonably calm facade while inside, I’m a tumult of emotions. I have found it’s easier to get through the day by staying busy so I’ve found myself always too busy to play with the kids. It’s a self-protection mechanism – if I slow down and play with them I will remember and dwell on everything anew. Best not to think too much.
But I need to move past that and open myself to my kids again to show I am really there for them. They are hurting too. But they can’t rationalise it or understand their own behaviour in the context of grief, not like adults can.
During times of grief, particularly when it is a new experience, you need to be there, really be there, for your kids. You need to be there to give them hugs, to talk over their fears and feelings and to share their memories. It’s hard – I now know first hand how incredibly hard it is. But you have to fight through your own grief so you can be there for theirs.
So there are my very early and random thoughts about helping kids through grief – have you got any strategies to share?