When young people experience the death of a loved one (including pets), there is that extra layer of care we take because children are often not as well-equipped to cope and deal with loss, emotionally and experientially, as we “mature” adults are.
Children need to be able to give their feelings a voice. Tip-toeing around them, or awkwardly halting conversation about the loss when they come into the room might feel like we’re protecting them, but we’re not. The last message we want to impart is that it’s not OK to talk about loss in general or about this loss in particular.
I recommend (even beyond creating the safe space to talk about the loss) allowing children to see you, the adult, having your feelings (crying, etc.) so that they have permission to do the same. Please don’t teach them – either through your words or behavior – that they have to be strong and hold it all in.
This is how the seeds of emotionally wounded and dysfunctional adults are planted.
The pain we experience after loss is normal. Explain to children that loss hurts because what was lost mattered. This may sound harsh, but it’s supposed to be painful; I’d be concerned if it were not. Do not “shield” or “protect” children from their pain. This pain is real, and appropriate, and is going to be felt anyway. It’s better to provide that “safe container”, than to suggest they have to hide their feelings.
Direct grieving children to other adults in their lives (uncles, aunts, clergy, teachers, coaches, parents of their friends) with whom they can be safely sad (or angry, or afraid). These adults should understand that the child’s grief (however it shows up) is not to be shushed, judged, criticized or redirected. Be willing to be sad together, huddled in a weepy, snotty heap. It’s cathartic and it will signal to the younger ones that they do not have to be alone with their pain.
This is not to say that joy shouldn’t be re-introduced into their lives, but do not use joyful activity as a distraction to alter what they are feeling in the moment. Example: “Oh, don’t cry, honey; here, have a cookie.” No. Allow the feelings to run their course. We all want to be seen and heard, especially when we are hurting. Be the witness of this child’s pain, or find them an adult who can.
Besides, distraction doesn’t work. The message communicated is that avoiding the feelings – as opposed to allowing the feelings to be felt – is “The Way” to cope. This is how people become addicts – to sugar (later to alcohol and other drugs), to entertainment (later to all forms of media), to a new toy (later to shopping)… you get the idea.
When the time is right (meaning, once the hard feelings have been felt), give children full permission to experience happiness again. It will spontaneously show up, perhaps sooner for them than it does for us, the adults. The thing is, children may feel guilty about their happiness, or believe that it’s wrong. Children ask themselves this question too: “Is it OK to be happy when our loved one is dead?” Answer: Yes. Of course. Please do.
Re-introduce small joyful activities. I don’t recommend a trip to Disneyland – WAY too much stimulation when a child’s nervous system has been through a shock and is trying to find its way back to homeostasis. Joy is a part of life; even after the death of a loved one and all the sadness that entails. Allow children the time to remember and re-discover what brings them joy, what makes them laugh, what allows them to feel better about themselves, but again, not as a way to avoid the difficult emotions.
Finally, remember that when a major loss occurs, we all find comfort in those circumstances that remain the same. If you can avoid moving to another home, neighborhood or state; if you can postpone officially pairing up with a new partner for a year or two; if daily and holiday rituals can remain familiar, this will help all of you feel grounded and “safe” again.
I do not work with children directly, but I do consult with parents, grandparents and guardians who are concerned for a grieving child, and are wondering how best to help. The first consultation of up to an hour costs nothing. It could make all the difference. firstname.lastname@example.org.