Helping a child cope with a loss due to death can be fundamental in helping them deal with loss of any kind the rest of their life. However, I found it to be a new experience and a hard one.
The day my first wife, Ruth, died I had 4 children at home ranging from age 11-16. Upon my second wife’s (Judith) death there were grandchildren in the picture. The various age groups present different ways of coping and helping each on understand.
I did not shield the kids from the closure process when their mother died. They went with me to pick out a casket for their mom. They stood by me at the viewing to watch and receive comfort from friends. They walked with me down the aisle of the church in front of the casket at her funeral. I watched as friends and relatives gave attention to them and not just me during comforting visits. We talked about her around the table for months. Our family photo albums became much more valuable.
It can be a mistake to assume a small child has no idea about death. They hear it referred to in conversation, movies and from friends. Children learn how to respond to life’s events by watching the adults around them. However, how one talks to a pre-teen is different than a 5-year-old. The Hungarian psychologist, Maria Nagy, has explored the meaning of death for children of different ages. “At ages three to five, they deny that death is final; it is like sleep, or like a parent going to work or on a brief vacation. Between five and nine, children accept the idea that someone has died, but not until age of ten do they understand that they themselves must die.” (The Harvard Medical School Journal)
Teens tend to grieve in groups. After I told my kids as a group that their mommy had died, I met with each of them in their room and cried with each one. I noticed that after my private talks with my teenage kids following their mother’s death, the first thing they wanted to do was to call their friends. The support of friends and other trusted adults was very important in their mourning process.
Honesty about death is a must. Comments like, “Grandpa is asleep,” can only increase a child’s uncertainties. Openly expressing your own feelings in forms resembling, “I am going to really miss Grandpa a lot,” and “I cry when I think of Grandpa,” can be helpful in showing the child how to mourn.
The day Judith died we had 24 grandchildren. Each one was given the opportunity to physically come to our house, say goodbye to her, and mourn her leaving with their parents. In addition to that, I asked one of my daughters to put together and print a photo book that included a page dedicated to pictures of Judith with each of the grandkids, one page per grandkid. These were given to each grandchild at Christmas (3 months later). Many of the grandchildren would look at that book nightly for months afterwards. It was more than a memorial; it was a grieving aid.
Regardless of age, we as adults need to be alert to the grieving process of a child. that we are involved with, they are going through. If you find yourself at a loss, I recommend getting counsel from someone who has successfully been there or a trusted professional.
Portions of this article were taken from chapter 7 of the book I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY. https://www.griefreliefministries.com/book
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