Letting Go: Ways to Help Your Child Cope with the Death of a Loved One

There is nothing more difficult and painful than to lose a loved one.  Most especially if this person is very significant to our lives, such as a parent or any family member.  Of course, it is a reality that nothing in this world lasts forever… that there will come a time when the people we love will leave us and that even we, ourselves, will eventually have to pass from this world.

Recently, my grandmother passed away.  With the reality of my family living in a foreign country and away from home, there was not much opportunity for my 3-year old son and my grandma to build on their relationship.  It was good thing, however, that my son got the chance to meet her a few times before, whenever we go home for vacation.  The last time was spending Christmas with her the previous year.  Although my son may not be able to understand her death, I still think that it is my responsibility as a parent to explain that grandma is no longer with us gradually until he reached that point when he will be able to comprehend.

No matter what the age of our child could be or whatever the situation may be, a sudden loss in the life of our children is something which we parents should be ready to guide them through.  More importantly, if they had shared a special bond with that person who passed away.

A child's concept of death varies with age, and this must be taken into consideration.  For instance, children from 0 to 2 years of age definitely have no clear understanding yet of death or that they may see death as a separation or abandonment.  While children from 2 to 6 years of old would believe that death is something temporary or reversible. (Source: Medicine Plus Medical Encyclopedia)

From my experience, here are some ways which I think can help our children deal with the death of a loved one: 

Discuss the concept of death to our children in a manner that will best suit their age.
Depending on our own cultural backgrounds or religious beliefs on death, we can be creative in the way we explain the concept to them by using situations, objects or words which they can easily comprehend. 

One way to do this is to read to them children’s story books dealing with death such as, “Goodbye Mousie” by Robie H. Harris. It’s a story of a boy who discovered that his pet mouse had died.  At first he wouldn’t believe it but saying goodbye later on helped the boy to accept the loss of his beloved pet.  Or perhaps, try watching a movie together about moving on from a loss such as Disney Pixar’s “Up”.  This is a story of an elderly widow who decided to fulfill the lifelong dream he shared with his late wife and befriended a young boy in the process.
As parents, it’s okay to grieve with our children. 
I believe that our children deserve to witness our own feelings of grief.  If we are sad or feel
like crying, then let it be.  But always be ready to explain to them why.  When my son found me crying over the loss of my grandmother, he immediately came up to me, gave me a hug and a tissue.  Somehow, that situation taught him to be caring and sensitive and that it’s okay to feel sad once in a while.

“Many parents worry about letting their kids witness their own grief, pain, and tears about a death. Don't — allowing your child to see your pain shows that crying is a natural reaction to emotional pain and loss. And it can make kids more comfortable sharing their feelings.” (Source: kidshealth.org)

For children who are old enough to express themselves - Encourage them to open up. 
Talk to them about how they feel.   Make them understand that we are ready to listen to them and that it’s okay to cry or to feel sad over the loss of a loved one.  Try not to neglect their emotional needs by leaving them to hide behind their pain or give them reasons to isolate themselves.  We need to make them understand why someone passed away.  Give them comfort and assurance through our love and understanding during this difficult moment.

Reminisce good memories shared with the loved one who passed away. 
Once we have allowed time for our children to realize and understand their grief.  Talk about good times and wonderful memories about “grandma” or “grandpa”, this way, they get to move on and focus more on the happy moments they have together rather than the pain of the loss. 

Do something special for that person who passed away. 
Plan with our children something significant to offer “grandma” or “grandpa”.  This will open opportunity for acceptance and allow them closure.  For instance, maybe write a thanksgiving letter for “grandma” for all the wonderful times together, or paint or draw a picture of her, or perhaps, send her a flower by tying it up to a balloon to be released to the skies. 

But the most important of all is the constant re-assurance that amidst the “loss” our children have experienced, they still have people around them to continue to care for and love them.  And for every special person in their lives they lose through death…nothing or no one can ever change the love and the bond they have shared.   With proper guidance and support we can give, they will understand that even if these people have gone from this world, they will forever live in the hearts of our children. 

(article published in Mother, Baby and Child Magazine October issue, a Dubai-based parenting magazine)