Dealing with the loss of a family member or close friend is exceptionally difficult for everyone. But it can be particularly hard for children, who don’t generally have as much understanding of death as adults. And it’s also always hard to know what to say to comfort someone who’s grieving, and this too can be especially challenging with children. But there are some messages kids need to hear after the death of a loved one to help them process it and deal with it.
The go-to sentiments and comments, such as “I’m sorry for your loss,” “I’m very sorry that this happened,” and “I’m here for you if you need anything,” don’t quite cut it. Children are likely to be grappling with more than just grief. Losing someone close to them commonly triggers other concerns about the larger issue of death.
So, if your child has lost a family member or close friend, it’s constructive to communicate the following four messages kids need to hear after the death of a loved one.
But start with a basic, honest talk about death. Help your child understand that it is a part of life, and that it is permanent and irreversible. Also, provide an age-appropriate explanation of how their loved one died.
Important Things to Express to a Grieving Child
- It’s not your fault. As you may have noticed, kids think the world revolves around them. It can be a little maddening for parents, but it’s a perfectly normal part of childhood. Kids are still learning about their place in the world, and kids under about 7 still haven’t completely figured out that their thoughts and feelings don’t affect the world. It’s common for children to blame themselves for negative things that happen around them, and this can include the death of a loved one. This is even more likely if the child had wished the deceased person would go away or leave them alone, or something like that, when they were upset. The first thing you should reassure a child about following the death of a loved one is that it was not in any way their fault that it happened. Elaborate that nothing they did, said, or thought caused the death.
- Whatever you’re feeling is OK. Sadness is a big part of grief, but it’s not the whole picture. Anyone’s reaction to the death of a loved one is complex, and we experience a wide range of emotions—sometimes even ones that trouble us. This goes for kids too, and it can be more confusing for them because they don’t have as much experience with grieving. They tend to take their cues from TV, movies, and books when they’re tying to figure out how they should feel in an unfamiliar situation. But the strongest cues come from their parents. Let your child know that any feelings they have are perfectly fine and normal—even if they’re not feeling anything at all at the moment. And it’s helpful to let them see you dealing with your own grief.
- You can talk to me about anything. Parents often avoid discussing the death of a loved one with their children because they don’t want to upset them. This isn’t beneficial, though. And if parents don’t talk about death or grief, kids get the unspoken message that it’s not good to talk about them. While the conversation may upset your child, being upset is OK, and it’s part of the grieving process. Kids need to know they have someone to talk to and ask questions. Ask your child how they’re feeling and discuss how you’re feeling. Ask if they have any questions, and reassure them that they can talk to you about anything at all that’s on their mind.
- Someone will always be here to take care of you. When a loved one dies, it’s natural for a child to imagine that loss extending to others. This is often the first time kids think about a parent simply disappearing. And because they love that parent, and because they understand—at least on a subconscious level—that their own survival depends on being taken care of by a grownup, this is a very scary prospect. It can leave a child feeling anxious, unsafe, and vulnerable. It’s a parent’s job to make kids feel safe and secure. Reassure them that someone will always be around to take care of them. But be honest. Say that if anything ever happened to you, there are other adults who love them very much who will step in to take care of them.
Dealing with the loss of a family member of close friend is never easy. And it can even make adults grapple with their own mortality and other complicated emotional issues. But children are even less equipped to cope with death than adults, and it usually raises the issues addressed above. So, please keep in mind these messages kids need to hear after the death of a loved one, and be sure to clearly communicate them. It goes a long way toward helping your child face this difficult time.
Also, be on the lookout for common signs your child should meet with a mental health professional. Many of them may result from struggling with grief or the experience of losing their loved one. A trained mental health professional can help your child cope in a constructive way.