Recently, I experienced some major losses. My dad and 16-year-old dog died within a week of each other. A few months later, my biological father died unexpectedly. With so much loss, when our fish died, how to let our daughter know actually weighed on me. Most of us don’t deal with death on a regular basis. But as grandparents and even pets age, it’s important we know how to navigate conversations about dealing with loss of life with our children. I sat down with licensed mental health counselor, Marta Marshall, for her professional perspective.
Be Open with Children
Marshall believes adults’ openness talking about loss signals to children that it’s okay for them to talk about it, too. “It’s a green light for them,” says Marshall. “When kids sense adults’ hesitation, they feel it’s not something they’re supposed to bring up.”
Marshall believes it’s important, regardless of the child’s developmental stage, to use realistic, direct language. “It’s okay to say that a particular person died.” She notes that vague descriptions can lead to anxiety. Knowing where a child is developmentally is key. Younger children, for example, need things to be concrete and simple. Older children may want more details. It’s important to follow the particular child’s line of questioning.
The death of a loved one is sad, and it’s okay for adults to show emotion.
“When adults show their emotions, it normalizes the emotions,” explained Marshall. Excessive crying without talking about it isn’t healthy. Kids need to know what is going on. Marshall also cautions against using children as sounding boards for the parent’s emotional needs. In that case, the parent should seek out professional help for him/herself.
Marshall believes consulting a counselor is always appropriate when dealing with death. “I encourage parents to see if kids have an inability talking through things, heightened signs of anxiety such as difficulty sleeping and eating, and aggression. Parents should definitely ask kids what’s making them most sad and whether or not talking about it would help them.”
Remember Grief Varies
“Parents have to remember that people grieve differently,” Marshall says. “While one child might want to talk a lot, the other one might not find talking so comforting.” She suggests that parents follow kids’ cues. However, if there is an inability to reach resolution, evidenced by a child repeatedly asking the same questions, consulting a counselor is a good choice.
Discuss Processes & Honor Special Occasions
Kids need to be prepared for events like funerals. Beforehand, adults can share what happens at funerals and that people tend to cry because of the person’s death. Moving forward, Marshall believes it’s important to acknowledge special occasions—like birthdays. “It’s part of incorporating that person’s memory and allows the family to celebrate the person together.”
Utilize Books to Support the Discussion
“Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children” by Robert Ingpen
“But, Where is Heaven?” by Jen Trussell
“Good Grief” by Granger E. Westberg