According to the Childhood Bereavement Estimation Model (2020), 1 in 14 children in the United States will experience the death of a parent or sibling by age 18. Death is often one of the most difficult topics to discuss, let alone with your child. While grief frequently brings sadness, it can also, create a host of other emotions including confusion. Especially when it is their first experience with death, children may not understand what is happening around them and may be very perplexed by the change in routines and sadness in adults.
One of the best ways to help children cope with grief and bereavement is through education. Education topics can include language commonly heard or utilized during a bereavement. For example, a child may overhear that their grandmother has “passed away and is being taken to Franklin and Sons.” If the child is not aware that “passing away” is a euphemism that adults frequently utilize for death. The child may not also realize that “Franklin and Sons” is in fact a funeral home and not another relative’s home.
Language can play a significant role in how a child understands and copes with death. While words like death and dying can feel very cold as an adult, this type of concrete language helps a child understand specific concepts related to death. Child life specialists receive specific training during both their education and internship training on how best to talk with children about death and how best to support them. They frequently utilize tools such as age-appropriate books to introduce grief and bereavement language. Books provide both context and explanations that can help educate a child on bereavement while also making it feel safer than introducing their own experience first. Many kids can assimilate the experience they read about with their own real-life experience which equips them to better process what is happening.
Grief and bereavement also provide an opportunity to help children understand the many emotions that come with the death of a loved one. The child themselves may experience many emotions and may witness many others experiencing them, too. Talking with a child about emotions at a time like this can have a lasting impact on how a child copes in the future. While these conversations can feel uncomfortable the benefits can be lasting. Allowing a child to explore their own emotions may be enough to start a conversation about this topic.
As a child life specialist, a few of my favorite resources and ways to help kids explore their emotions include…
Drawing pictures to engage a child in conversation
Utilizing a guided workbook such as When Someone Very Special Dies: Children Can Learn to Cope with Grief (Drawing Out Feelings) by Marge Heegaard or How I Feel: A Coloring Book for Grieving Children by Alan Wolfelt
Note writing or journaling
Whether its loss is anticipated, or your family is in the throes of a loss, our child life specialists are available to provide a variety of supports to help the youngest members of your family navigate this time.