Last year, my dear grandmother passed away right before Thanksgiving, and this year, my parents lost their dog, Dexter, right after that very holiday. In our family, Novembers are the worst. My twin five-year-olds were close with my grandmother and cherished that dog like their own, but I did a good job helping them understand death and navigating their grief while processing my own — or so I thought.
We were taking a family hike this past weekend when one of my sons asked me a question that left me speechless. “Mom,” he asked in his sweet little voice, “Can I die tonight?” I did my best impression of a deer trapped in headlights while my husband sent me a horrified look over our son’s head. “Why do you want to do that, kiddo?” I finally stammered. “So I can see great grandma,” he said casually as he hopped over a log, “and pet Dexter.”
Clearly, I’d bungled this important parenting moment, and had no idea how to fix it. So, I tried that old parenting standby: distraction. “Here, have a granola bar,” I said, and then asked him what his favorite dinosaur was.
Dealing with death, whether it’s a beloved family member or a cherished family pet, can be devastating. And when you’re a parent, you have the additional challenge of coping with your own grief while helping your children through their feelings. Determined to figure out where I went wrong, I consulted with some experts and parents who’ve helped guide what to say (and what not to say) to kids coping with grief and loss.
1. Don’t shy away from using the words ‘dead’ and ‘death’
As parents, our first instinct is to protect our kids. But using soft language around the concept of death might actually do more harm than good. “If you beat around the bush you leave them with these euphemisms that don’t really make sense, because the kids don’t have the context to understand it,” explains Laura Morlok, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, Registered Play Therapist, and Founder of Playful Therapy Connections. “With pet loss for example, when you say, ‘They were put to sleep,’ kids have the experience of sleep. You run the risk of your child thinking, ‘Is that going to happen to me when I go to sleep? Am I not going to come back?’ Or the child saying, 'Oh, so they’ll be back in the morning when they wake up.’”
Keeping things direct can help kids process what’s happening. “My daughter was two and a half when my grandmother died — the first major death in our family that I had to deal with as a parent,” says Jeanne, a mom from NY. “While she was too young to really grasp what what’s going on, I didn’t want to shield her too much. I took her to the funeral and was very matter-of-fact that GG Ma (her name for her great-grandmother) was gone. I told her GG Ma was very, very old and very, very sick.”
2. Let them know it’s okay to cry — or not!
It’s important to remember that everyone processes grief differently. Some children may cry more than others or become upset if they see you or other family members in tears while they themselves remain dry-eyed. (I remember sneaking into the bathroom to splash water on my face as a six-year-old when my great-grandfather died because I wanted to be crying like everyone else). Help your child feel that his emotions are valid by explaining to him that grief comes in many forms.
“Try to give them a relevant analogy of something they’ve already experienced that will make sense to them,” suggests Morlok. “Something like, ‘Do you remember when you fell on the playground and you skinned your knee and you cried, but do you remember the other day when Joe fell down at the playground and he yelled at the slide for being an idiot?’ Or ‘Do you remember when Uncle Frank dropped a hammer and said that really bad word? Everybody was hurt or sad but everybody showed it a little bit differently.’”
3. Don’t assume you know what your child is feeling
While we might think telling our kids, “I know how you feel” is reassuring, it can sometimes be frustrating or upsetting to a child because we don’t actually know what she's experiencing. Instead, focus on yourself. “Acknowledge your own feelings while reminding children that no feeling is final, and that each expression of emotion (especially the negative ones) are meant to help a person heal and grow,” says Dr. Shannon McHugh from Parenting Pod.
Help your child feel supported and understood during his grief using books and movies that depict death and loss. The Scar is a beautiful picture book about a little boy processing the loss of his mother that could be helpful to any child who’s lost an adult with whom he was particularly close. For tweens and teens, a book like If Only, where an eighth grader learns how to go on after losing her mother to cancer may help them feel like they’re not alone in their emotions. “Books and media are amazing,“ says Morlok. “They can be a really good tool because when you see yourself represented in media, that really resonates with you. It gives you the sense of 'I’m not the only one who’s had this happen, it isn’t just me'.”
4. Let them know it’s OK to feel sad
No parent wants to see their child upset, but telling children to "be strong" or that the deceased would want them to be happy won’t stop them from hurting. Instead, help heal their pain by being vulnerable enough to show them your own. “Modeling emotional expression (sadness, crying, grieving) is very important for children,” says Dr. McHugh. “Trying to be strong will send a message that grief is not an acceptable form of emotion, which could cause them to internalize their sadness and increase the likelihood of them having what we call ‘complicated bereavement,’ or the development of a psychological condition that may require treatment.”
For touching books made for days when your child needs a good cry, take a look at our list here.
5. Let them know it’s healthy and normal to think about those we’ve lost
Help your kids understand that those who are gone aren’t forgotten. You can have a yearly day of remembrance that includes writing letters for a memory box, or it can be a casual conversation that comes up naturally by keeping photos around the house or pointing out gifts and memories that remind us of the deceased. “When our dog died we talked a lot about how it was okay to be sad, that we were all sad, and that’s it important to remember and talk about things we loved about the dog,” says Kelly, a mom to a six-year-old from Wisconsin. “We said some days remembering those things would make us sad, and some days remembering those things would bring us joy and no matter what she felt it was totally okay.”