Coping with loss is difficult, period. It doesn’t matter if you’re an adult, an infant, or someone in between. If we’re struggling, it makes the prospect of talking to kids about loss even more intimidating. Avoidance typically seems easier. We stall and hope that maybe it will magically work itself out. Even though deep down we know it won’t and inevitably we will have to get out of our paralyzed emotional state and face it. Unfortunately, our inner monologue can be very good at talking us out of facing our fears and we come up with conditions that keep us stuck.
I can’t cry in front of them.
I need to predict all their questions and have answers lined up.
I’ll get to that conversation when I “figure it out.”
Here are my top 3 suggestions for helping your child cope with death.
Don’t try and take away their pain.
I know this sounds counterintuitive to what many people believe is their job as a parent. Your child cries, you make them feel better. That’s the play, right? In some cases, yes. But when it comes to coping with loss, your child needs permission to feel sad and grieve in a way that feels natural to them. Resist the urge to save them from their feelings by distracting them or avoiding conversations about the person who passed away. Instead, sit with them in their sadness. Cry together. Talk about the person who passed away, tell stories, and share memories. You’ll be sending a message to your child that you can handle their feelings. That feelings are okay. And you are there to cope together.
Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
As parents we expect ourselves to be capable of answering our kids’ questions. But what about when it comes to death? Is it reasonable to hold ourselves to the same standard? In my opinion, no way. You will not have all the answers all the time, and that’s okay. The scariest question most parents dread from their kids is, “Where do you go when you die?” You may feel comfortable with a religious or spiritually-based answer. Maybe not. Saying “I’m not sure, what do you think?” is one way to answer an older child. It has the potential to open up a deeper dialogue that could help you both feel more connected. For younger children, you might respond with something different like this: “I like to imagine Grandma sitting on a beach drinking an iced tea. She always loved to have her feet in the sand. Remember that summer when she fell asleep with the iced tea still in her hand?!”
Don’t expect children or yourself to “move on” in a specific time frame.
A common misconception about grief and loss is that we should move on from our sad feelings by a specific deadline. This concept only adds pressure and makes us very critical of our feelings after that made-up deadline has passed. Adopting a different perspective will take the pressure off and quiet those critical thoughts. In a recent TED talk, Nora McInerny shared a new perspective founded on the idea that we don’t move on from our grief, but instead we move forward with it. This means you will not stop feeling sad that your parent passed away. Your child will not stop feeling sad that Grandma or Grandpa passed away. But you both can accept that feelings will come and go forever because they represent the role and importance the deceased person played in your child’s life. When those feelings come up, acknowledge them, talk about them, accept them as part of life now instead of resisting or judging them.
Editor's Note: When we needed to explain the loss of my mother to our son, we read these three books a lot. All were recommended to us by a family who also had suffered a loss and needed to explain it to their child.
The Memory Box, The Invisible String, and The Goodbye Book.
Talia Filippelli, LCSW, CHHC, CPT is a licensed psychotherapist, certified holistic health coach, certified personal trainer, the Chief Happiness Officer at Starr Therapy in Hoboken, and a mom of two. She has been featured on CBS News as a mental health expert and was voted a Top Kids Doc by NJ Family Magazine in 2014, 2015 and 2016!
For more information on Talia or Starr Therapy, visit: Starr Therapy, LLC