Updated: Jun 14, 2019
By Dr. Sarah Haas *
You get the phone call. THE call. The one you knew was going to happen, but dreaded it's coming. Or the call you did not anticipate happening whatsoever that brings you world crashing down. A loved one close to you and your child has passed on.
You probably feel a range of emotions immediately - potentially anger or sadness or relief or peace. Maybe you even start worrying about that person's significant other or their children. Then shortly after that, you think about your child. You may have thoughts like, "my child is too young to understand this", or "how unfair this is to have my child go through this so young", or maybe your thoughts are more about the logistics like "what do I tell my child", or "how will my child do with traveling to the location of the funeral?"
These are all normal reactions. With grief can come lots of emotions and thoughts. So how should we talk to our children about the death of a loved one?
1. Talk to your child about what happened.
Of course, here it is important to take your child's developmental age into account. if your child understand what cancer is, you can talk about those specifics. If your child is not at the developmental age to understand the specifics, you can use vague language that gets at the ultimate message, for example, "your grandpa was sick and now we won't get to play with him anymore." Children are concrete thinkers; they are more likely going to understand "you won't get to play with your grandpa" versus "your grandpa is not here anymore."
2. Talk to your child about your emotions.
Your child looks up to you to understand how to react to events that happen in life. As a parent, you are constantly modeling behaviors for your child. Often times, children will be worried about their parent if they interpret your behaviors as you feeling sad, depressed, or upset. Talking with your child about what emotions you might feel to better prepare them for this can be useful. For example, "Your grandpa passed away today which means you won't get to play with him anymore. That makes me really sad." Or "we are going to a wake today for grandpa. You might see some people crying at the wake. Mommy might be crying too because mommy is sad about grandpa. It's OK if mommy is sad."
3. Talk to your child about their emotions.
"How do you feel about not being able to play with grandpa anymore?" Be open and OK with their response. They don't have to be happy, they don't have to be sad, they don't have to be upset, and they don't have to feel uncomfortable. They do not have to cry to show sadness. What is less healthy is if they are avoiding memories or feelings of their loved one, so allowing them space to talk about their thoughts and feelings can be helpful.
Let them know whatever emotion they feel is OK; it is OK if they feel sad and it is OK if they don't. You may also want to assure them that no matter what, they can always talk to you about how they are feeling about the situation. Be open to talking with them in the future, share positive memories of your loved one, or express that they miss them.
4. Help make your child feel safe or comfortable.
If your child seems really scared, worried, or sad, tell them it is OK to feel this way. You can also work together with your child to come up with a plan for what they can do to help them feel secure, safe, more comfortable. For example, if your child has a blanket that helps them feel safe, talk about the option of bringing the blanket to the wake or funeral. "Do you think you'd feel better if you had your blanket with you?"
5. Make sure you are taking time for yourself to heal.
As parents, we are often driven to prioritize our child, their health, and their well being before our own. But how are you able to help others when you do not have much gas left in your tank? Just like before takeoff in an airplane, the flight attendant will tell you to put your oxygen mask on before helping someone else with theirs, you are more well-equipped to help your child through the grieving process if you are taking time out for yourself to recharge your batteries.
Grief does not happen linearly. You or your child may feel like you're in a good place one day and not the next. You may find yourself feeling sad or angry about the loss years after it happens. This is normal.
One thing that can be a nice memory of your loved one is by making, or having someone else make, memory teddy bears for your children. You use a shirt that your loved one used to wear to create a teddy bear out of it. This way, you will always have a memory of your loved one.
Disclaimer: The Information provided through this website, including the various pages, blog posts, and emails, are designed for informational purposes only and does not constitute a client/therapist relationship. The information is not intended to replace medical advice or mental health treatment. Every individual person's situation is unique. Please seek out individual care if needed.