Old enough to grieve

We suffered a death in the family recently and I had to help my 6- and almost 4-year-old to grieve. Having worked in death and dying as a palliative care nurse I was aware of most of the theory around children and grief but it is always very different when dealing with it first-hand.

These are some of the issues that families with small children might face when dealing with the loss of a loved one.

How much to tell

Our need to protect them from sadness means that often we don't want to tell children the truth. We fool ourselves into thinking that they are too young to understand. A respected children's psychologist Alan Wolfelt said: ‘Anyone old enough to love is old enough to grieve.’

It is even tempting to try sugar coat the truth. The problem is that in a child's mind this can be more scary than the reality. For example telling a child that dying is like having a long sleep might sounds like a nice way of putting it, calm and peaceful. However a child associates everything with their own reality and suddenly bedtime becomes frightening.

The truth is actually easier for them to process. It needs to be discussed in an age-appropriate way. Then it is best to let the child guide you by asking questions and you can answer the things they bring up in conversation.

Children show grief differently

It is okay for them to be sad and to see us grieving. Watching us they know that the emotions they feel are normal. 

Children process things differently: it is often surprising to adults how kids can be sad one minute and playing the next. This is normal, children deal with things in smaller doses.

Heartbroken adult often find the kids joking and playing difficult to deal with or mistake it for thinking the child does not understand or grasp the reality of the situation. Helping children through play, drawing, crafts and books is a good way to let them process the loss.

Should children be involved in a funeral?

This is a question every family will need to answer. It is a good idea to involve children in some way in remembering the person. Feeling excluded can do more damage. I spoke to my kids and offered them the chance to be at the funeral and they decided as the service would be in Afrikaans, a language that neither of them speak yet, they would rather play at a friend’s house. But when we scatter the ashes they want be involved.
If children are involved it is good to have an adult designated to help them during the service so they can leave or go play if needed.

Don't underestimate kids

Everything I read about 3-year-olds said that they cannot always grasp the finality of death and might ask when the person was coming back. My little boy really surprised me. He understood that his aunt was not coming back. He is at the age of magical thinking though and kept saying that he wished he was a knight so that he could go and rescue her and bring her back for us.

Children and your own grief

Be prepared that children will speak about the person that has died when they remember or have questions. This can sometimes be painful for adults when the person is mentioned out of the blue. The questions they ask can be difficult, like what happens to the body and where is the person now. Give them honest information but keep it to what they can cope with at their age.

Mom, will you die?

Once children realize that people they love can die and that they too are mortal it can be a bit frightening for them. My son spent a few days asking if I was going to die, I said that I would one day. It made him sad but we spoke that it was not happening imminently and that we have things to do and enjoy together. Every now and again we he will suddenly say ‘Mom, you are going to die’, whichs took a bit of getting used to.

Children might regress

Your child might regress and start wetting the bed or going back on other milestone. They might also act out, which can be very difficult to deal with at a time when you are coping with your own grief. Organise play dates or times with other friends so that children can also have a chance to just be kids and have fun and not just be around very sad adults.

Be kind to yourself

You are hurting too at this time of loss, be kind to yourself. Being a parent at times like this is hard.

Has your family coped with a loss? What did you do to help the children?

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