As parents, it’s natural to want to shield children from life’s harsher moments — disappointments, heartbreaks and failures. But when a child’s world includes some serious realities like the death of a close friend, parents need to buffer that reality for their children even while they may be grieving at the same time.
Break It to Them Gently
Depending upon your children’s ages, you will likely be the one to break the news to them that their friend has died. Very young children who are in the pre-K to first grade age range may have a very limited concept of what death actually means. They may not comprehend that they will never get to see or play with their special pal again. You don’t have to hammer home the finality of it all at once; that can be a gradual realization.
The younger the child, the simpler the explanation should be. If this was a child with whom you were emotionally invested as well, it’s okay to show your emotions, but try to retain as much control as possible when breaking the news so that you can offer comfort to your child. It’s okay to say something like, “Remember how sick Jamie has been lately? He got sicker, and today his body quit working.”
When a child dies suddenly in an accident like a fire or a wreck, you want to minimize the details to keep young, impressionable minds from perseverating on gory details. Saying something like a child breathed in smoke from a fire and died is preferable to the idea of them imagining a friend burning in a house fire.
If you are a person of faith, you may want to briefly say something about the death of their friend that is in line with your family’s belief system, but keep it age-appropriate on a level your child can absorb.
Reassure Them It Won’t Happen to Them
When a friend dies, young children frequently fear that whatever caused the demise of their friend will also kill them off, too. Parents may have to have many, many reassuring conversations with their youngsters explaining that they are safe, that whatever happened to their buddy will not happen to them (it was a very rare occurrence, etc.) and they don’t need to worry about getting cancer (or some other terminal disease.) If it was an accidental death, point out how careful you always are to make sure that everyone wears seatbelts (or life preservers, or changes the batteries in the smoke alarm, etc.). These discussions may go on for quite awhile, so remain patient as your child expresses fears and trepidation.
When They Don’t Cry
Don’t be alarmed if your children don’t appear outwardly upset by crying or asking questions about their friend’s death. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t affected on a much deeper level. With younger children, it’s often that they don’t fully grasp what it really means to be dead. Older kids may feel that they have to preserve that cool exterior in front of the parental units, acting as if they aren’t bothered.
Don’t make a big deal out of it, but let your kids know that you are there for them if they want to talk further and share their feelings later. Sometimes children need time to process the enormity of a close friend’s death, just as adults do. The full impact can take awhile to hit, then settle like a ton of bricks. Be there to lighten the load of their grief.
Honoring the Memory of their Friend
Parents can ask their children if they would like to honor the memory of their deceased friend in some way. It could be in planting a tree with a plaque in front of it, making a donation to the local animal shelter, donating a book to the library, anything that would be meaningful and would honor the friend whom they loved. This is a healthy way parents can help their child express grief over the loss of a friend.