Updated: Oct 24, 2019
Written by Ms Loh Sit Fong, Consultant Clinical Psychologist
Your child may be devastated by the loss of a loved one, pets, or a friend. Despite the intense feeling of loss, it may not be obvious from his reactions – it may be expressed in different ways, e.g. he verbalises it (which rarely happens), complains of physical discomfort (such as headaches or tummy aches), or becomes anxious or distressed with other aspects of life (such as school or his other activities).
Be ready to help him if it manifests in an unhealthy manner. While you may not be able to protect him from feeling the grief or sorrow, you can help him feel safe. Allow and encourage him to express his feelings, which can help him to develop healthy coping skills that will serve him as an adult.
Understanding how children view death
Your approach should be developmentally appropriate, i.e. the way you talk to a toddler would be different from how you talk to an older child. Use this chance to talk to him about the circle of life. Help him better understand it instead of shielding him from it.
Help him cope
Be factual when you explain about death, especially when talking to toddlers. Use simple and direct words instead of euphemisms. Saying “Grandpa went to sleep and is in heaven” may backfire and cause him to fear naps or bedtime, worrying he will also go to ‘sleep’. A simple explanation is that death means a person’s body no longer works the way it did when that person was alive.
Take this opportunity to share your religious or spiritual beliefs about death and encourage him to ask questions. Answer them in an honest and direct manner. If you cannot answer immediately, help find the answer; this will go a long way reassuring him and making him come to terms with the loss. Encourage him to express his emotions by asking him to draw a picture, or to note his thoughts and feelings in a diary or journal.
In the event a parent or caregiver passes away, a common worry is who will then take care of the child, which may manifest in feeling insecure. The child may become clingier or feels abandoned. Additionally, he may also feel responsible for the loss. It is vital that you make your child understand that no blame is attached to him and that the person who died will not be coming back. Do what you can to provide him with as much love and affection to assuage his worries of who will still care for him.
A child as young as three years old would understand the concept of saying goodbye. Giving your child the chance to say goodbye to the deceased will help him to move on. Allow him the choice of attending memorial or funeral services but do not force him to go if he is reluctant. If he wants to attend, brief him on what to expect when he is there along with any do’s and don’ts ahead of time.
Look in the mirror
Before you help your child deal with loss, take a moment to clarify your own thoughts and feelings. This includes your first experience with loss, things that helped (or was not helpful) and how you dealt with it. Your experience, especially if it happened when you were a child, may help you recognise and understand his feelings.
Explain to him that the deceased will still ‘live’ in his memory. In the case of terminally-ill parents, many will leave letters, videos, or photographs to help their children remember how well-loved they were.
Your child may want to compile pictures and other relevant items to create their own memorabilia to cope with their loss. For younger children, their knowledge of the deceased will come from other family members, so don’t hesitate to talk to him about that person often while reminding him how much he was loved by the deceased. There is no harm in celebrating the deceased’s birthday or any other relevant day (e.g. Mother’s Day or Father’s Day) as a means of remembrance.
Don’t hide your feelings
sYou should share your grief with your child, but take care not to overwhelm him. By expressing your own emotions, you encourage him to do the same. This helps him to understand that grief can be a complex mixture of emotions such as anger, guilt, and frustration. Explain that both his emotions and reactions may be very different from those of adults.
As pain and grief come and go over time, your child may not expect when he will feel sad. Do your best to keep his routines or schedules as consistent as possible. Most importantly, continue your job as a parent by maintaining limits on his behaviour. It is alright to ask him how he feels. Pay constant attention and help him find his way through his grief by talking and listening to him. The grief process may take longer for some people, so it is okay to ask how he is coping from time to time.
Encourage him to continue with his regular activities as much as possible and reassure him that it is alright for him to feel happy and have fun. If you have any concerns about your child’s behaviour or worries over how he is coping, speak with a child psychologist or other mental health professional.