- Tell me what happened. Never lie to me; doing so won’t protect me. Children know when something’s wrong with the grownups in their world. Sheltering them from the truth leaves room for their wild imaginations to take hold. I have met many adults who are terrified of death because it was hidden from them at some point in their childhood.
- Don’t assume I won’t understand or that I can’t handle it. Death is a part of life, and children are curious about it. It is our responsibility to ensure that our young people understand that death is a natural part of life. Talk to them about death with the same ease as you talk about other important things. This way they are reassured that there is nothing to be afraid of.
- You don’t need to have all the answers. In fact, I don’t know anyone who does have all the answers. Answer your child’s question in simple, easy to understand terms. If you don’t know the answer, it’s ok to say, “I don’t know.” Children need to know they can ask you anything without you being angry, judgmental, or belittling.
- Let me see the body if I want. Parents often worry that it will be too scary for a child to see a dead body. Remember, a child’s imagination is usually worse than reality. Just be sure to prepare your child by telling them what to expect. They need to understand what viewing the body will mean.
- Don’t try to fix me or take my grief away. Grieving takes time – for children as much as for adults. Some signs your child may need professional help include nightmares, belief that the world isn’t safe, ongoing behavior problems that don’t ease over time, detachment from the people or things they used to enjoy.
- Let me laugh and play. Laughter can help a great deal. Even grownups benefit from laughter. It helps us feel better. For many children play is the only way to work through hard times, from everyday challenges to fear and anxiety, even death and grief. Imaginative play helps children better understand reality. But don’t think a child isn’t grieving just because they’re playing and laughing.
- Children are resilient; they bounce back. They will often grieve in short bursts, expressing their emotions full on rather than dwell on a particular feeling. The younger a child is, the more quickly the outburst will end. But that doesn’t mean they are not sad. Children need as much compassion and understanding as adults.
- I learn from you. I’m like a sponge and will soak up everything I see or hear you do. When you cry, then I know it’s ok to cry. When you scream, I learn that the only way to grieve is to scream and yell. And I’ll want to be louder. Remember that when you express your grief in appropriate ways, I learn from your patterns and styles.
- Tell me stories. Sharing your stories helps me remember too. Encourage children to draw pictures or write my own stories. Sharing happy memories helps grief heal. Always comfort and reassure your child.
Grandma’s not lost! Don’t use euphemisms when talking with children about death. Saying that someone is lost sets up an expectation that they can be found and will return. If Grandma is lost why aren’t you out looking for her?