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Helping Your Child Deal with the Loss of a Loved One

By Jessa McClure
By Jessa McClure

Sad mother and daughter on blackI watched family members and people I didn't know file into a room I'd never visit. None of them looked my direction as I sat in the potpourri-scented waiting room of the funeral home with my feet dangling inches from the floor. I knew my grandmother had passed away, but I didn't know why I had been excluded from the service.

Years later I realized that my parents were attempting to shield me from the disturbing images of my grandmother's open casket. But, I didn't feel protected. I felt like I had missed out on saying goodbye.

While a parent's first instinct might be to hide the sadness and trauma that comes with the death of a loved one, experts say that it actually might do more harm than good. Children need a chance to express their feelings and get a sense of closure. Here a few ways that you can help your children through the grieving process.

1. Tell the child immediately
According to a report in Psychology Today, it is important to be honest with your child when a loved one has passed away. You don't want them to overhear it or hear it from someone else. It is also important to use a normal voice, not a "hushed whisper," the report says. This might scare or disturb a child while they are hearing the news.

Avoid using euphemisms or saying the person or animal went away for a long time. This only confuses the child and makes them feel betrayed if they find out about the death later on.

2. Tell the child their feelings are okay
Every child will react differently to losing someone who is close to them. Whether it is a favorite pet or a beloved grandmother, the child might have varying emotions and feelings about this loss. Let your child know that they might feel sad or angry in the coming days and that it is okay to feel this way.

It is also okay for your child to see you grieve. He or she will find it comforting to see you express your feelings openly, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. It will give him or her the opportunity to do the same.

3. Provide comfort and support
After experiencing the loss of a loved one, a child might experience the same spectrum of emotions as an adult. There might be days where he is angry and other days where he is depressed and needs more affection and attention.

The AAP suggests reassuring the child that you will not leave them. And if you vow to spend more time with them over the coming days and weeks, then keep your promise. This will help to provide emotional support and more opportunities for the child to feel comforted and secure.

You should also be prepared to answer questions about death and life after death. It is normal for your child to ask if the person is deceased multiple times. This is not a ploy for attention. It provides closure and security.

4. Share memories of the loved one
While it may be painful for you, it is important to celebrate the life of the person who has passed away, in order to reassure the child that he or she is not forgotten. Sit down with the child and look at pictures of the deceased loved one and share stories that help the child remember that person in a positive light.

5. Look for warning signs
While every child grieves in his or her own way, some children might need more help than others to get over the loss of a loved one. If you notice any of the signs below, you should consult your child's primary care physician or a licensed mental health professional.

  • The child regresses and is no longer able to do things he or she could once do

  • Uncontrollable or frequent crying

  • School performance declines

  • Irrational fears

  • Loses interest in the things she once loved

  • He or she isolates themselves from others

  • Develops sleep/bed wetting problems

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