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Handling grief when a loved one passes can be difficult enough for us grown-ups, and talking to children about death can be more difficult still. Yet children too must grieve, and helping a child through the loss of a loved one, be it a sibling, parent, grandparent or friend, doesn’t have to be intimidating. Dr. J.W. Worden, a professor at Biola University, has written about the subject and has an ebook available through Google Books for free if you would like more information.
In his book, Dr. Worden reminds us that even though a death may have recently occurred in a child’s life, that children begin processing the reality of death at an early age. “Long before we realize it, children become aware of death. They see dead birds, insects, and animals lying by the road. They may see death at least once a day on television. They hear about it in fairy tales and act it out in their play. Death is a part of life, and children, at some level, are aware of it.”
Some children may take a shockingly nonchalant stance when dealing with death while others will be more expressive. Be careful not to prejudge a child for being seemingly callous or chastise them for being overly emotional. Stay watchful and attentive, answering their questions honestly (they may understand more than you think). A white lie may hamper the trust you have.
Understand Your Own Grief
Be aware of your own grief. Children are a sponge and will absorb your words and expressions. If you are sad, be honest about it and don’t be afraid to express your sorrow for the loss of a loved one. At the same time, be careful that you don’t over-burden the child with your own grief.
Much like talking with our children about sex, talking to them about death is best to do over the course of their life at appropriate times as they are able to understand it. Talking with the child about life cycles and how a flower may grow and drink water from the ground and absorb the rays of the sun, that flower will at some point die and will cease to do those things. Though that flower is dead, it did produce seeds and offspring and provide joy to us in its time. And its offspring is left with us to enjoy again in the spring.
You’re Not Alone
Remember that you’re not isolated. Other parents and caregivers have had to speak with their children about death. If you know someone in your church or community who has experienced loss that has affected their children, don’t be afraid to reach out to them for advice and support. That’s what friends and community are for.
Below are some links to some helpful articles.