The death of a loved one often occurs unexpectedly, but sometimes there is an opportunity to prepare. During those final days there can seem to be an endless list of arrangements that must be made and tasks to get one’s affairs in order. Emotional preparation must also be done, and coming to terms with the impending change is overwhelming. It is even more complicated when there are children in your life who may not understand what is happening. Helping them navigate their complicated & confusing emotions while also coping with your own emotions can seem daunting. How does one prepare a child for such a painful loss?
My first advice would be do not hide the situation from them. They may not need to know all the details, but they can sense when something is wrong. Pretending that everything is normal will just add to their anxiety & confusion. Explain to them the situation in the best way you can with simple terms, and do so early enough that they have some time to adjust and to say their goodbyes.
If a child asks to go visit their loved one before they pass away, it can be comforting to them to be allowed to do so unless it would present a hardship the person they are visiting. Children know what they need, and you can follow their lead. Some parents are hesitant because the appearance of their loved one has changed , and “I don’t want her to remember grandma like that.” Rest assured that the main memories a child will retain are the happy loving ones of the times they spent with the person they care about, but if you prevent them from saying goodbye they WILL remember that. Also, a child’s imagination is often more graphic than reality, and if you do not allow them to see their loved one for themselves they may create an even more disturbing scenario in their mind. Instead, give them calming support as they spend the last moments they can with that person. Even if they show emotion that doesn’t mean the visit was a mistake, it just means they are processing. In general during the grief journey it is beneficial to allow children to express their emotions freely.
Children can tell when the people around them are upset, so you can be honest with them about your feelings. You can tell them you are mad. You can tell them you are sad. You can tell them it’s okay to be tired, and it’s okay to feel nothing at all. Seeing you experience honest & complicated emotions & work through them helps empower a child to cope with strong emotions & difficult situations in their own life.
It is also helpful to allow children to ask questions, even the difficult ones. They may ask about what is happening to the body as it nears death & it changes appearance, or they may want to understand cremation or burial. It can help lessen their anxiety if they know ahead of time what to expect. Explain what will happen at a visitation, during a funeral, or at a burial. If you are religious it is also an opportunity to talk about your faith, and what happens to the soul after it leaves the body. It is not recommended to say someone “falls asleep” when they die, because that can confuse a child or make them afraid to go to bed at night.
Books can often help explain things to children in a unique & comforting way. The Fall of Freddie the Leaf has been used for decades to help explain death to children. This website also lists useful books, including The Invisible String and Gentle Willow.
After all the explanations and goodbyes occur, the main thing that a child needs is reassurance & love as they process this painful change in their world. You can get through this time together, hand in hand, and you support one another.
Jennifer Roberts Bittner
Funeral Celebrant/ Life Tribute Specialist
Morrissett Funeral and Cremation Service
6500 Iron Bridge Rd.
N. Chesterfield, VA 23234
Serving the Richmond area since 1870