This has been a season of loss in my small-town community. In the last 3 or 4 weeks, there has been two teen suicides, one gun threat at the high school, another suicide of a 41-year-old with children, accidental death of an 8-year-old, and the death of my 93-year-old neighbor and friend.
I know that “death is a part of life,” but I sure wish it wasn’t.
There are different view about how to best guide children through the loss of a friend or loved one. Here are some ways you can help grieving children.
You Can’t Hide The Loss
Let me say that again. You can’t hide the loss from children. Even babies pick up on the moods of their loved ones. If you’re sad and grieving, it doesn’t matter how big a smile you paste on your face. Your kids will know something’s wrong. If they get no guidance on how to deal with it, they will react to this “unknown” in unpredictable ways.
So what can you do?
Talk to the child about what happened, but don’t go into unnecessary detail. It could be as simple as saying, “Mommy’s sad that Grandpa went away. Sometimes it’s hard to say goodbye. When I’m sad, I like to _____. Would you like to do that with me?” Supply an activity you like in the blank. It could be to read a book, pray, go for a walk, draw a picture, write, or do anything else.
If you do this with a child in your life, you may be surprised. Later, after you’ve forgotten the interaction, the child may come up to you and say something like this: “Mommy, I’m sad. Would you _____ with me?” They will request the same thing you modeled in your sadness and grief.
Children Need to Say Goodbye Too
The first thing that pops into many minds with the phrase “say goodbye” is the visitation and funeral. Some of you may be shocked that I would suggest such a thing for children. Whether or not the child should attend the visitation or the service is really up to that family. You know your child best. When making this decision, please consider the following.
Visitation and funeral don’t get easier with age. It’s always hard, and we always want to avoid it. Even when it was my own mother and sister, I didn’t want to go. I went because I knew it was important to say goodbye, but those are not things I would do on my own.
One of the (not looked for) benefits of owning pets is for children to be exposed to death and grief. My first experience with death was a cat we had when I was very little. I don’t remember how old I was when this cat died, but it was before we moved to California. That means I was five or under. I loved that cat, even if he had to live outside, and my allergies went nuts every time I touched him. I learned to admire and love him from a distance. Then one day, I went out to look for the cat, and Dad said he was gone. Gone? What do you mean gone? When’s he coming back? Dad said a coyote got him. I didn’t know what that meant. My parents finally told me he was dead. I asked if I could see him. They said a firm no. I didn’t get to bury him. He was just gone. It took a long time to adjust because I didn’t understand and I didn’t get to say goodbye. When we moved, I got to say goodbye to our horse. That was a completely different experience.
The first funeral I attended was my grandfather’s. I was eight, and my little sister was five. This was my first brush with death. I’m not sure I understood everything. I knew Grandfather had been sick and was gone now. I knew he looked funny lying there like a wax figure and not moving. Honestly, it creeped me out. BUT, I had a chance to say goodbye to this special person in my life. I went through these tough rituals of death surrounded by a family I knew loved me, cared for me, and would protect me. We shared memories of my grandfather, and I learned more about what he was like before I was born. When it was all over, I knew life would be different. I would not see my grandfather again this side of heaven. I would never visit him again, hear his corny jokes, or receive his warm bearhugs. I was able to say goodbye.
In the days, weeks, months, and years after my grandfather’s funeral, my family was sad. My mom would cry. When I asked what was wrong, she said that she missed my grandfather. That made me feel better for being sad and crying myself. I felt reassured because I learned this was the normal grief process.
Now picture what it would have been like without that opportunity. Mom and Dad would have left for a week, and my sister and I would suddenly be left with other family or friends, with no explanation. I would have wondered what I did wrong to make my parents leave. Then, when they came back, they would have been sad. Mother would have cried, but I wouldn’t know why. I’d be sad because my parents were sad. Also, being me, I would have been extra hard on myself because I couldn’t make them feel better.
Then, when my grandmother died five years later, I would have been in worse shape. My grandmother and I became very close in the last few years of her life. When she died, I missed her greatly. Still, I remembered enough of the experience with my grandfather to know what would happen next. That made it less scary and actually gave me some comfort in my grief. (I’ll admit though that visitation still creeps me out, even at the age of forty.)
Now, I know that not every child is like me. I will say it one more time. You know your children best. Prayerfully consider whether your child(ren) should attend a funeral or not.
Saying Goodbye Outside of the Funeral
Whether or not your child attends the funeral, they will need to process their grief. Make sure they know it’s ok to feel a gamut of emotions. Let them see you work through some of your grief. They don’t have to see all of it but show them they’re not alone in mourning the loss.
I recommend putting together a memory box or writing memories in a journal. They could also write a letter or draw a picture for that person. They will not receive it (because they’re dead), but it often helps a person process grief and say goodbye.
Here are two books I recommend for grieving children. (No affiliate links.)
Someone I Loved Died by Christine Harder Tangvald
Illustrated by Anne Kennedy
This picture book helps young children understand why they are sad how to talk to God about it. Using age-appropriate words and solid biblical truth that understands a child’s hurting heart, Someone I Love Died includes interactive resources to help little ones create a memory book of the loved one’s life.
Remembering Someone Special, Grieving Journal for Kids by Jane Wilke
Ages: 7 – 12
For more ideas, here’s a list of “10 Solid, Biblical Christian Books for Kids About Death & Heaven” by US Urns Online.