The grief of knowing that our loved one isn’t coming back can be one of the most difficult experiences we’ll ever face. Especially for children, death can be just as confusing as it is upsetting.
Children’s reactions to the death of a loved one vary depending on age, temperament, and life experience. Toddlers and small children often don’t realize that death is permanent; hopeful and even expectant that whoever has died is coming back. When reality does set in, children learn that death is a part of life, an irreversible final chapter. The severity of emotional fallout depends on a child’s emotional intelligence, their faith, the closeness of their relationship with the decedent, and both social and cultural norms.
One healthy practice is to help children understand death before it touches their lives. Discuss a dead houseplant, a dead butterfly, or even a once healthy fruit on a tree—now fallen or rotten. If possible, speak about death (and what it means) before children experience it in a meaningful way. The better children are prepared, the less likely they’ll be to experience fear or confusion.
Timing & Honesty
Wait until children are in a safe and secure place, and ensure they have access to any physical coping mechanisms—maybe a loved stuffed animal or a special blanket. With calmness and caring, tell the truth. It’s natural to want to protect them, but it’s best to be honest and explain that their loved one died.
Take it Slowly
Children tend to process death in bits and pieces, over time. When we sit them down to give them overwhelming news, don’t expect them to fully understand right away. Sometimes, children will ask, three days after the funeral, “When is Grandpa coming back?” During the weeks following the loss of a loved one, children tend to grieve in their own way, acting out more than usual. As they wrap their head around the tragedy of loss, we must be patient, calm, and supportive.
Crying is OK
Mourning the death of someone close to us can be a long and/or painful process. Let’s not hide ourselves from our children as we grieve. When they see us cry, they’re more likely to grasp the feelings behind our emotions, recognize the finality of death, and be better prepared to deal with their own grief.
Wakes & Funerals
Assume elementary-school-aged children and teens will attend the wake and funeral of a loved one. If given a choice, loyalty may conflict with fear and possibly lead to a fear-based choice to forego attending—a decision they’re likely to regret. Wakes and funerals are family affairs. We are there to honor and celebrate the life of our loved one; to support and comfort one another as we mourn their passing. Children are important family members, and they should be present with the family for all important gatherings: whether to attend a wedding, to celebrate a new baby, or just as importantly, to grieve the loss of a loved one.
For more distant relationships and acquaintances, it’s good form to invite children and teenagers to wakes and funerals, while encouraging them that it’s their decision to make. If we don’t invite them, they may feel that they didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. On the other hand, children who are forced to attend may feel resentful. As they decide, tell them we are commemorating the death of our friend, when and where the arrangements are to be held, and who will be there. Either way, it’s healthy to let them choose for themselves and not criticize them for their decision.
Life Goes On
Our child’s world has changed completely, especially if they were very close to the person who has died. It’s appropriate to convey, “Life is going to go on. We’re going through a very tough time right now, but we have our whole lives to look forward to and we’re going to be OK.” Spark conversations about their interests and upcoming events—a school dance next weekend, a fishing trip next month, or visiting with their cousins at the next family party. Offer healthy reminders to help them remember and appreciate the positives in life.
For many children, losing a loved one can be destabilizing, not only because of the physical loss but also because death can evoke fears of abandonment. As we help children navigate the loss of a loved one, reassure them that so many other people in our lives are alive and well—aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, and lots of really good friends who are just like family are still right here with us. Remind them that they are so very loved by so many people!
Heaven and the Afterlife
Unlike any other life event, death helps children understand the power and necessity of the gospel. The understanding of and faith in the gift of eternal life can move mountains for the psyche of a grieving child. At funerals, children bear witness to the grace and resolve of those who know Jesus Christ. The voices of hope they’ll hear from Christians during a funeral will register for them on the deepest, most elemental levels, creating a fertile soil for the seeds of Christianity to take root. Funerals can be difficult, but they can also be a miraculous time for reflection on the promise of eternal life in God’s heavenly kingdom.
Former Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun. If you do not, the sun will soon set, and you with it.” As peacefully and respectfully as possible, with preparedness, timing, and honesty, fathers should help children understand death. Mortality is real and death is inevitable. Inside the hearts of faithful Christians, the gift of eternal life offers immeasurable solace and the confidence of a new tomorrow.
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” —Revelation 21:4 NIV
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PLEASE NOTE: As an Amazon Associate, Fathers Truly Matter earns from qualifying purchases. The information in this post should not be construed as providing specific psychiatric, psychological, or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, or psychotherapist.