Mahsa A. Lindeman, MS, MFT
Call: (925) 289-9733
Andrew Lindeman, MS, MFT
Call: (925) 322-0793
Location: 190 N Wiget Lane Suite 275 Walnut Creek CA 94598
Death often times tends to be a complex and difficult topic for most people. We have difficulty saying and doing the right things when a person we know is experiencing the loss of a loved one. We procrastinate and avoid all-together writing a will or some type of instructions for the aftercare of our possessions and loved ones. But most of all, we avoid discussing death with our children.
Many parents simply do not know how to approach the topic and end up having a belief that children are not capable of handling the concept of death. Its a topic that is glossed over, denied, avoided and often times the responsibility falls to others such as teachers or religious leaders. But whether your child has personally or not personally experienced a death of a loved one, it is a topic that must be discussed.
Death is unavoidable. Sooner or later your child will experience death of a pet or loved one and instead of shying away from the topic, take the opportunity to openly, honestly and age-appropriately discuss this important matter with your child! Children have an innate sense and understanding about life and death that we adults may sometimes forget about. The thoughts and fears running through parents’ heads about these conversations are often times much, much worse than what actually happens.
Here are my tips for discussing death and helping your child through the grief process:
Death is not a topic that necessarily needs to be brought up by you. Its all around your child. A pesky fly getting swatted in the house, cartoons/kid shows showing death and loss, losing pets, etc. When the situation presents itself, be completely open and honest yet age-appropriate. Keep answers simple yet satisfying to them.
Children often times will revisit a conversation or topic several times over the course of days, weeks or months. Be available and open to talking and repeating each time.
Making up cute little stories only cause more problems down the road. One day your child will know that Fido didn’t go to a farm and that will only cause them to feel confused, betrayed and more upset. Keep it honest, straight-forward and simple. Kids understand much more than we give them credit for, especially in regards to death.
Your child is likely to experience some type of loss at some point. For some children it is a death of a grandparent, a pet, or an extended family member. For other children it may be a parent or a sibling. Any type of loss will bring different complexities but these are some tips on helping your child cope:
This can be more complicated if you are going through your own grief process. However, it is vital to set aside one-on-one time to openly answer your child’s questions and validate their feelings. Be present and be available to your child’s concerns and questions. Particularly if the death was sudden or tragic, your child will have many questions and feelings.
Observe what you see in their grief process (changes in mood, behaviors, activities, etc). Allow them space to talk about the changes they have experienced. Validate their feelings with such statements: “This must be so hard for you. I can imagine how sad you would feel losing… You may be feeling angry or confused and that’s normal.”
Adults have rituals such as funerals to help say good-bye to a loved one. Sometimes, funerals can be healing for children and sometimes children will not be able to participate or understand the process. Use your best judgment on whether to include the child in the adult rituals. Whether or not they participate in the funeral, however, it is still important for children to have their own ritual. Get as creative as you want and allow the child to lead the way. Make cards, plant a tree or flowers, light candles, draw pictures, write letters, make a picture collage. Rituals are so important in the healing process.
Healing from a significant death takes time and it is never a straight shot. Weeks or months or even years later, your child may bring up the topic or start to feel sad again. This is normal. If you allow for those back-and-forth-type feelings, your child will eventually resolve the complexities of the grief process and move forward.
Providing your child a healthy foundation for the inevitable occurrence of death will help your child understand and process loss and grief in a much healthier way. In my practice, I have seen many teens, adults and older adults who suffer from complicated and unresolved grief. This is usually because the foundation set in their childhood about death was incomplete or avoided. This can cause a host of issues later in life. I have also seen many children who believe that the topics of death and grieving are taboo because of how it was handled in their families. Following these steps will help protect your children from having those types of reactions not only today but also down the road in their life.