Simply clicking away from disturbing stories isn’t a solution to the problem that all parents face in this fallen world: helping our kids deal with death. Even if we do manage to click away (or turn off our televisions and radios), we can’t prevent our kids from learning about people dying – even young people, like them.
It’s challenging to know how to help kids who are grieving the traumatic news of other kids’ tragic deaths. Many professionals like psychiatrists and doctors try to help, but come up short. Yet, as a parent, you have more of an impact on your children than anyone else does – so you’re in the best position to help them deal with death.
Here’s how you can help your kids deal with death:
Start conversations gently:
If it’s clear that your kids have already learned about someone’s death (either a person in the news or someone they knew personally, such as a classmate or grandparent), don’t avoid talking about it. Your children may raise the subject with you, or they may not know how to do so – but they need your help to process the news whether or not they bring it up.
Starting conversations by gently making a simple statement (such as “I’m sorry that [the person] has died”) or asking kids some open-ended questions about the death (such as: “How do you feel about it?” or, if your kids knew the person, “What was [he or she] like?”). When your children don’t want to talk, though, don’t force them to do so; simply let them know that you’re available anytime they do want to talk.
Listen well. Give your kids the opportunity to honestly express all of their thoughts and feelings about the death to you – no matter how difficult those thoughts and emotions may be. They may share information that reflects anxiety, anger, doubt, sorrow, frustration, or helplessness. Don’t dismiss their concerns or judge them for what they tell you. Encourage them to say whatever they need to say so they can grapple with it all in the open, which is an important part of the healing process.
Respond wisely to troubled behavior. Grieving children may act out their feelings by being clingy around their parents and other people who are close to them, or they may withdraw from people, Children processing someone’s death may also have difficulty concentrating on tasks (like schoolwork or household chores) that they had no problems doing before, or experience trouble sleeping or eating. Give your kids grace if their grief affects their behavior, and try to keep their routines at home as normal as possible, to give them the support of a stable schedule.
Answer questions in age-appropriate ways. Young people of different ages deal with grief in different ways. Children who are younger than age 5 tend to struggle with understanding what death really means and need simple, literal answers to their questions so they’ll know that the dead person isn’t coming back.
Children between ages 6 and 12 understand death but tend not to grasp their own mortality; they can handle more detailed information and honest answers to whatever questions they ask. Teens tend to search for deeper meaning behind people’s deaths and need you to help them in their search, which can strengthen their faith.