We know that these have been extremely challenging days, not just here in Ontario, but around the world. We understand that many children and youth may have recently experienced the death of a loved one during these difficult days.
When we lose a loved one, grief affects all of us – even children – in different ways. It can be mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting. It can be especially confusing for children and teens. As such, we wanted to help direct parents/caregivers to information and tips to help grieving children.
Children’s Mental Health Ontario has prepared these suggestions and recommendations from experts to help parents/caregivers talk to children about death and support them through the grieving process.
Be honest and clear.
When a child is coping with the death of a loved one (or the impending loss of a loved one’s life), it can be overwhelming trying to find the right words – as a parent/caregiver, the last thing we want is to hurt our children or see them hurting. But honest communication is important for children.
Depending on a child’s age, telling them that ‘we lost grandpa’, or that ‘auntie has gone to a better place’ can be confusing. The child might wonder why you are not looking for the person if they are lost, or where this better place is that their loved one has gone to. It can be difficult to say the words, but it’s better to be clear and honest and tell them their loved one has died or is dying.
Of course, a child’s understanding of death varies with their age – younger ones don’t understand fully the concept of impermanence. For children, it can also be helpful to explain that when a person dies, that person’s body/brain no longer work, and that the person’s senses no longer work. It is also important to use simple language when telling a child how their loved one has died. Saying the person was sick could trigger anxiety or confusion that something like a common cold could cause death.
For many of us, having to navigate grief with a child is not something we have expertise in. We may feel like we don’t know what to do or say. One thing that can help is to listen to your child. Let them know that you are there to listen and share feelings and thoughts. Follow their lead, engaging when they signal you.
Depending on their age, you can encourage your child to express themselves through activities like storytelling, play, arts and crafts, or writing – whatever suits your child.
Encourage them to ask questions if they have any. Their questions can help a parent/caregiver to know how much information/detail the child needs. It can be expected that a child may ask the same questions over and over as they try to sort out and process the information.
It’s ok to not know the answers.
When you don’t know the answer to their questions, it’s ok to tell them ‘I don’t know’. Sometimes when loved ones die, even adults are left feeling like there are things unexplained. It’s ok to tell children that. Let them know that you will ask someone who might know the answer. Parents/caregivers may even arrange for older kids to meet with experts, such as a doctor to ask their questions. But sometimes, there just is no answer to be had, and that is ok, too.
Show your support.
You can support kids by validating their feelings, and by letting them know that it’s ok to feel a mix of emotions. Don’t be surprised, too, if your young child wants to play and have fun. This does not mean that they do not care. Children just need time to do what they normally do which is play – this helps them cope. They are processing in their own way. Again, just follow their lead. Keeping routines in place can be beneficial. And do watch if your child is particularly acting different, too quiet or too busy from their typical demeanor. Check in with an expert if this is prolonged.
Don’t forget to take care of you, too.
It can be so hard to support someone when you, too, are grieving. This is an opportunity, however, to share your family’s grief. It’s important to keep in mind that how you grieve will provide cues to your child on how they might experience grief as well. Parents/caregivers will be dealing with their own reactions and need to have an outlet to express how they feel. Finding friends and online counselling to help themselves is really important. Giving yourself permission to take care of yourself and/or to reach out for help and support can be a good example for kids – it shows them how natural it is to struggle with grief.
And parents/caregivers, it’s important to remember that you just have to be good enough in dealing with this as a parent – not perfect.
Memorialize your loved ones.
It is ok to talk to your child about the person who. Remembering your loved one, telling stories, and laughing about good times together are all ok to do, and they can provide comfort to your child. You might work together to come up with ideas for memorializing your loved one. Older children and teens may find it especially helpful to have the opportunity to honour their loved ones through memorials or tributes.
When it comes to teens, the support parents provide is likely to be very different than how they would support younger kids. Often, for teens, their friends are especially important at this time, and they may even seek support through social media networks. However, the experience can be isolating if their friends are not comfortable or willing to talk about it. In this case, community peer grief support groups may be helpful, so that your teen can connect with others in their age group going through similar experiences. You can also empower youth to participate in any memorials that are planned for your loved one – it gives them a chance to share and be a part of the process.
If you feel that your child needs more help, ask an expert. Child and Youth Mental Health Centres have expert clinicians and mental health care workers who are experienced in supporting grieving children and their families across Ontario.