This can seem like one of the trickiest roads to navigate with your child, especially since you’ll probably have your emotions tied into the grieving process. Figuring out how to proceed might appear confusing – it is, and it isn’t – when you consider that there really aren’t any “rules” to follow; just things to consider.
The first is that everyone – even kids – grieve in their own way, so go into the conversation open-minded, knowing that your child may or may not respond as you expected, or as you would have when you were their age. The most common way for intense sadness to be expressed, of course, is through tears. Be prepared for that. If fact, be prepared for your own. Avoid retreat thinking like, “I decided not to talk to them about it, because I didn’t want to make them cry.” Tears usually come from deep down inside us, and as a natural expression of grief, they are what you would expect. Besides, who better to comfort your child at that moment than mom or dad?
Have the conversation. Explain what happened as best you can, and try not to dodge words like “dead” or “death.” Keeping in mind that kids can be black-and-white in how they hear what we say, you might avoid telling them something like, “ They’ve gone to a better place,” which might be confusing unless it relates to a religious or spiritual framework your child already understands. Saying “they died” instead of “they passed away” models accurate vocabulary regarding a loved one’s death.
Whatever words you choose to use, the overarching goal is to comfort your child, and it makes sense to do that through an intimate conversation. You’ll try to support them in a few different ways, one being the demonstration that you want to talk with them about what happened, another being the validation of whatever feelings they express. That being said, keep in mind that younger children may simply accept what you’ve told them, responding with something like, “…oh… okay…” The grieving process is exactly that: a process. Some youngsters may not show much emotion until they have developed a capacity to synthesize (and articulate) deeper feelings, which will eventually come with growth and maturity.
So you’ve had the conversation and convey accurate information while modeling appropriate expression. Know that you are tackling a difficult interaction with your child. Know also that, whatever course the conversation takes; you are setting the stage for other challenging discussions that you hope your son or daughter will bring your way in the years to come: conversations about peer influences, appropriate relationships, self-worth and identity, and so on.
This is a challenging opportunity, but it is an opportunity – one in which you can do some wonderfully supportive and comforting work as a parent.
Contributed by Mike Nolan, School Counselor