Preparing children for loss

Returning to my hometown to raise our children has provided a lot of wonderful opportunities for our family. One of the most wonderful in my mind, though, has been the chance for our young son to get to know and spend a good deal of time with my own grandparents. I feel like it is such a gift!

My grandparents delight in seeing my son growing and discovering the world, and my son seems to truly enjoy the time we spend with them. Over his short lifetime their health has been deteriorating, and he has watched as our family has assisted them more and more. As a result, he has adjusted accordingly. His hugs and kisses have become more gentle. He is watchful and careful (as a 3-year-old can be) when playing near them. He also asks if they are okay, aware that they are not always comfortable. While their failing health is incredibly difficult for everyone, it seems to be affording him valuable life lessons in compassion at a young age.

Recently an extended hospital stay provided a stark reminder for my husband and I that sooner than later we would need to prepare our son for the most challenging of life’s lessons – there will be an end. Before we are faced with the grief of a loss, we are hoping to provide him with a bit of preparation. But in spite of my role here, I was at a bit of a loss on how best to approach explaining death and grief to my child. After a bit of research, I thought it would be helpful to share the tips I’ve gathered:

  1. Be honest with your children about what is happening to their loved one. Children are more aware than we realize when something is wrong, but they need our guidance and explanations to know how to process the experience.
  2. Be welcoming of their questions and do your best to answer them all as simply as possible. Try to keep your answers appropriate for their level of development and try not to overload them. If you don’t know the answers to their questions, say so.
  3. Avoid euphemisms that may cause confusion and frighten your child, such as “sleeping forever.”
  4. Allow your child to be involved in care-taking duties and to visit their loved one. Again, answer any questions or concerns that may arise from these visits.
  5. Don’t hide your own emotions from your child. Sharing and explaining how you feel can help your child learn to process and share their own emotions.

Your child’s first experience with loss will do much to shape their lifelong views of death and grief. And more than anything that you can tell your child, the behavior you model during this difficult time will also shape the way they process grief. It is important that we don’t allow our own fears and taboos to limit us in our ability to help our children.

For further information, I highly recommend the articles linked below:

When a Grandparent Dies

8 Ways to Prepare Your Young Child for a Grandparent’s Death 

Talking to Children About Death

Helping Children Cope with Bereavement