Loss of a Loved One — Explaining Death to Your Kids

Grief can overwhelm adults so it is no surprise that it can also be difficult for children to process as well.  Especially when the deceased is a family member with whom your children enjoyed a close and loving relationship, there may be a rent in the fabric of the family that may only be patched with time and memories of cherished moments together.  Helping your kids come to terms with their loss can ease their pain and help them grieve in a healthy manner.

Keep It Simple for the Younger Set

Children, ages 4 to 7, are likely to internalize many of their feelings about a close relative’s death.  They may brood about it, thinking that perhaps they caused it from brief feelings of anger toward the person. Some children fixate on the specifics of the death, asking questions that appear morbid, e.g., “Why did Grandpa’s eyes look like that?” They might even bluntly ask, “Mom, when are you going to die?” They are not being intentionally insensitive.  These questions help them come to terms with the reality of the situation. Some of their questions help them to express fears of being left without the security of mom and dad, opening the door for reassuring words and a cuddle.

The younger the children are, the less they are able to absorb.  The permanence of death is a concept that may prove to be tenuous at best for them to grasp.  Don’t be surprised to hear your kindergartner ask weeks after the funeral, “When is Grandpa coming over again?” Be prepared to gently go through the concept again.

Primary and Middle-Schoolers

Children in the age range of 8 to 11 understand that death is final.  They can grieve copiously or appear to be uncomfortable addressing the death and shrug it off. Neither response is better than the other is, and those who display the latter reaction initially may tend to express their emotions later, even if only privately.

Kids may revisit this topic in various ways and under different guises with parents, other adults and peers, as they struggle to come to terms with the fact that everybody dies. Parents can still be a solid source of comfort for children working through the stages of grief.

Pre-Teen to 15

This is the age when the traditional communication gap may begin to widen so keeping those lines open now is paramount when you want to guide your adolescent through the grieving process.  Make sure that you use the utmost discretion when breaking the news of a relative’s death to a sensitive pre-teen or teen.

Not all teens wear their hearts on their sleeves, and if yours shuts down, it is wise to give them space.  Even if they appear unmoved, you can bridge a connection by including them in remembrances and celebrations of life for the deceased family member.

Older Teens, 16 to 18

Teenagers of this age realize the fragility of life to some degree, although they still may feel invulnerable themselves at times.  But they may also be pondering more metaphysical and philosophical aspects of death and the potential of an afterlife — or not — which may be in contrast to your family’s faith or value system. Remain open-minded if they come to you with doubts or questions about faith and what happens to us after death, but don’t be offended if they seek out information from different sources. At this age, their worldview is shaping and parents still play a major role.

You can help your older teen keep a beloved family member’s memory alive by doing a project with them. Make a Memory Box using a glass or wooden box containing photos and mementoes from different periods of the person’s life. Include plenty of pictures of them with your teen and special items, like ticket stubs from a rock concert or ball game, or a ballerina’s toe shoe if the two shared a love of ballet.

Grief cuts a chasm through families and each person handles it differently according to the different ages and personalities of the individual members.  In these moments, parents most often are the anchors that moor families to shore.

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