Like any important life experience, death is not just one conversation. As parents and caretakers, we must prepare for the concepts of loss and death to be woven into the everyday conversations of life. A dead fly on the windowsill might spark an explanation of the physical death of the body. A lost toy may be a means of working through the concepts of impermanence and lost attachment. Like any major life concept ( sex, finances, spirituality), death is a lifelong conversation that evolves with our developmental growth.
The first time I talked to my son about death, I was sitting on the front step of my parent’s home. It was late May, shortly after his father had died. We had not seen each other in days. As I stepped out of the car, dazed and disassociated, he ran to me from my father’s garden and softly said, “Mama. Where’s Papa?”. At three years and two months old, he felt the heavy weight that question had taken on in the past week. I scooped him into my arms and took a seat on the edge of the deck, my feet resting on the rocks below. I told him that Papa was dead. I explained what death was. And we had his first glimpse into the concept of death while processing the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of his beloved father.
We have had countless conversations about death, loss, grief, the body, since this moment. Claira asks questions now too. It’s a part of our dinner conversation, and small talk at birthday parties. Death is part of our lives, and we treat it as so in our family dynamic. We have to.
A lot of people have approached me, personally and professionally, to gain information about processing death, dying, and loss with children. I have put a great deal of thought into this subject, and I would like to share my own beliefs and practices around this important concept. I am a LCMHC, Music Therapist- Board Certified, and School Counselor, but this is information I also share as a mother and widow. I highly encourage anyone seeking information of sort to seek multiple resources and talk to qualified mental health professionals in their own communities.
Supporting Kids Through Loss:
1. Explain Death
It can be difficult to find the words to explain exactly what death is to children. We, as a culture, are generally removed from realities of the body’s death, making it a taboo and uncomfortable subject for many to talk about. This is the script that I have used in talking to my children about death: “When someone dies, their body stops working. They do not move or breath or talk. They are not able to think anymore. When someone dies, they are dead forever. They do not come back to life.” Depending on your family’s personal spiritual belief system, it is then helpful to describe the afterlife and important spiritual aspects of death. Including their method of burial can also be part of this conversation.
(Because I am secular, I describe that Papa’s physical energy went back into the universe, and that his body was cremated and put in his urn. I tend to keep it science-based, but this is up to each individual family).
My professional advice around this discussion is to keep the information you give your child simple and honest. Answer their questions as best you can, and do not give them more information than they ask for. Allow them to feel comfortable asking any question, and encourage them at any time. Know that it will be an ongoing and evolving conversation through childhood and adolescence.
2. Show Your Emotion (But Don’t Make Them Responsible For Supporting You)
Something that I have seen stated repeatedly is the importance of allowing children to see us grieve. We attempt to be strong for the children in our lives, hiding our tears and emotions in times of sorrow and strife. The reality is that sadness is normal. Crying is healthy. It is important that children see adults grieving as we grieve, and normalize the emotions that come with loss.
There are times that I’m having a tough day. Perhaps an anniversary or special occasion has triggered my memories, or I am simply feeling overwhelmed by the weight of post-loss parenting. I may be irritable or sad, and struggling to keep up with my children’s needs. On these days, I tell my kids that I am having a tough day. If I yell or have an inappropriate outburst, I will explain to them how I am feeling, and they will often respond with a long hug and empathy. I allow my children to go through their emotions, and support them in however they are feeling. We talk openly about how we feel, how we miss Papa, and allow each other the safety of trusting challenging emotions to be a normal and healthy part of the grief process.
This being said, it is also important for us to do our best not to make children feel personally responsible for caring for us when we are overwhelmed with emotion. While crying in front of a child and sharing feelings is a healthy means of dealing with grief, it is important that children know we are capable of caring for them and loving them even when upset. Throwing breakable objects or sobbing over a bottle of bourbon is best saved for after bedtime. Driving too fast while listening to excessively loud music is common, but not with kids in the car. (I’m not recommending any of these things, but you know what? It happens). We can express emotion to our children while also being sure not to make them feel personally responsible for supporting us. It can be a difficult balance, and we all make mistakes, but it is a concept to keep in mind during dark days.
3. Behavior is a Form of Communication
Kids can be total shit-heads. Their incessant demands, irrational opinions, big feelings and infuriating sleep schedules can wear down even the most patient caregivers. Children can be challenging in general, but the behaviors of grieving and traumatized children can be especially difficult. Bereaved children and adolescents may experience and exhibit changes in sleep and eating habits, behavioral regression, tantrums, emotional outbursts, sudden bouts of crying, depression, withdrawal, anger, talking-back, risk-taking behaviors, and violence. This may present itself in different ways with different children at all developmental stages. When a grieving child acts out, it is important not to personalize their behavior. Children do not show us challenging behaviors because they are trying to hurt us, it is because they themselves are hurting.
It is important to take a rational approach in dealing with difficult behaviors in bereaved children (any children, really). Responding rather than reacting. Recognizing that a child screaming “I HATE YOU!” in a crowded grocery store is not trying to be a terrible person, they are just processing a feeling that feels too big for them to express. Respond to their anger with love. Tell them when they are crossing a boundary, but chose natural consequences over punishment (ie, a screaming child may get carried out of a store without a treat, but should not be spanked or publicly shamed for their outburst). Not not attempt to neutralize anger with anger, rather respond with kindness, empathy, and understanding. Easier said than done. Still important.
4. The Arts and Healing
Expressive Arts Therapies (including music, art, dance/movement, drama, and play therapy) are an incredibly powerful tool in support children through the grief process. If you are fortunate enough to live in a community with access to expressive arts therapists, consider reaching out to enroll your child in individual or group therapy sessions. Child psychologists and mental health counselors who specialize in working with children may also use expressive arts techniques in their work. Giving your child a trusted adult to process with is a gift that will continue to support their emotional and behavioral health beyond the initial stages of grief.
At home, consider creating space for art and music in your daily lives. Put music on in the background while eating dinner, or play dance tracks and groove during clean-up. Make art materials easily accessible, and allow your child to focus on self expression and exploration of the materials over structured crafts. Give your child opportunities to explore themselves through art, music, movement, play, and hang even the angry paintings up on the wall. By expressing ourselves, we feel seen, heard, validated in our emotional experiences. Give your child to express any of it, without judgement, as they grow and cultivate their interests and passions.
5. Get Outside
In the early stages of loss, it can be difficult to get out of bed, let alone go for a run. Find small ways to get you and your children outside. Feel the sun on your face and allow the wind to cool the tears on your cheeks. Interact with nature. The rhythms of the natural world mirror the rhythms of our lives, and the first crocus, even on the coldest day, is a reminder that hope is possible. Even when it is difficult, even when you don’t feel like it, try to get outside with your children. It will offer you all freedom and emotional re-set, and might make the day feel a bit more manageable.
6. Take Care of Yourself
Being a caretaker to bereaved children in an astronomically difficult task. Especially when you yourself may be grieving. Be sure to fill your own cup first. Hire babysitters, and don’t be afraid to ask for help from those who offer it. Give yourself time and space to explore your own passions and meet your own basic needs. Shower, eat, move, sleep. Get a therapist. Get out sometimes. Do the best you can to care for yourself. In time, and with personal work, it will get easier. (Maybe a lot of time and work). Care for yourself so that you can care for them.