Tips for talking about grief with children
BY PAT HANSON, PHD
Grief is something we all need to address at some point in our lives. This keen sense of mental suffering over an affliction or loss is part of the healing process and part of life. For many of us it is difficult to acknowledge. Whether it is the death of a pet, or separation of grandchildren from grandparents for whatever reason, or an actual death of a loved one; grief needs be faced.
Be truthful and use the word death or separation. Avoid confusing euphemisms like “lost” or “gone away” or “went to sleep” or “went to a better place.”
Below are some “Talking Tips” that will help you and children communicate about grief. It’s better to ‘talk through these delicate issues rather than “stuff them.” Research shows that when you least expect it later in life, long-term avoidance can erupt into phycological or physical illnesses.
- Assess their understanding – consider a child’s age and stage of development before giving too much information at one time. How close they were to the person gone may affect how much of the circumstances of the death or loss you wish to share.
- Keep it a dialogue by asking questions about what they already know … and don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something.
- Watch your language – Be truthful and use the word death or separation. Avoid confusing euphemisms like “lost” or “gone away” or “went to sleep” or “went to a better place.” These can cause eating and sleeping difficulties at any age.
- Anticipate emotions – For both boys and girls tears should be welcomed as important. Christiane Northrup, MD author of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom calls them emotional excision and drainage.
- Reassure. Reassure. Children need to know immediately that this is not their fault. Nothing they may have said or done could have contributed to this situation. They need to know they will be taken care of.
- Involve children in decision making about whether and when to attend a memorial, or make plans to honor the missing grandparent in some way. Suggest writing to them or their spirit on postcards to let them know how they’ll be doing.
- In particularly troublesome situations involving drugs or suicide, talk about the person who died in a caring and respectful way. Get some professional help for yourself, and possibly family therapy involving the children.
- Model self-care – “When I am sad and upset, I like to exercise and talk with friends. What helps you?
Among the books you read regularly to kids, consider these popular children’s books about death and loss.
The Invisible String (Ages 3+) Author Patrice Karst – Illustrator Geoff Stevenson
Specifically written to address children’s fear of being apart from the ones they love.
Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss
Authors Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen If you are going to buy only one book on grief, this is the one to get! It will validate your grief experience, and you can share it with your children. You can leave it on the coffee table, so others will pick it up, read it, and then better appreciate your grieving time.
When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death (Dino Life Guides for Families) (Ages 4-8)
Author Laurie Krasny Brown, Illustrator Marc Brown Straightforward and compassionate, When Dinosaurs Die explains death, dying, and coping with grief and loss in simple and accessible language for young kids and families.
I Miss You: A First Look at Death Published by First Look at Books (Ages 4+)
Author Pat Thomas Illustrator Leslie Harker Explains how death is a natural part of life, including why people die, how people express grief in different ways, and provides suggestions on how to cope with the death of a loved one. Includes notes for parents and teachers.
Grandma Wishes: Children’s Board Book (Love You Always) Board book – Cottage Door Press Author Julia Lobo Illustrator Helen Rowe
Grandchildren love knowing how special they are to their grandparents. This beautiful keepsake board book is sure to be a family treasure. Do you know there is a special star on which new grandmothers wish? What a lovely gift for new grandmothers and grandbabies.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – DR. PAT HANSON
Pat Hanson is a seasoned health educator, public speaker, and workshop facilitator. She is the author of Invisible Grandparenting: Leave A Legacy Of Love Whether You Can Be There or Not. She lectures nationally on Aging Positively and is a columnist for the magazine: Crone: Women Coming of Age