At some point, all of us will experience the loss of a beloved family member, friend or “fur kid”. Adults struggle to explain the concept to little ones as it’s a parent’s natural instinct to protect them from pain.
Yet, it’s important to remember that if their sense of loss is not addressed properly, it could result in lifelong emotional difficulties. In the book Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive, child expert authors Daniel J Siegel and Mary Hartzell note that healthy grief is a normal process.
However, unresolved loss in children can give rise to self-destruction, social isolation and difficulty in functioning on a day-to-day basis.
Here are a few ways to help your kids make sense of sad experiences, as well as build emotional resilience.
TELL IT STRAIGHT
Many children get their first real experience of death when a pet dies. News of the death should be conveyed by a person the child trusts and feels comfortable with, such as a parent, suggests marriage and family therapist Dr Hana Ra Adams.
As kids can sense what’s happening, give them the information they need to make sense of what has happened from their perspective, as well as how it fits with their lives and their picture of the future, explains psychologist and family therapist Anoushka Beh.
Do also gloss over any gruesome details or images, such as if Rover was run over by a car, as such details will only cause shock and even trauma.
USE SIMPLE LANGUAGE
Children take words literally, so be very clear and careful with your choice of words.
“Say the person was ill for some time and his or her body doesn’t work anymore,” suggests Dr Adams. Don’t be vague or use euphemisms like they “went away” or “are sleeping” as your child might start fretting about sleep, or that if a person goes away, they might never come back.
RECOGNISE THEIR FEELINGS
It’s difficult for kids to wrap their heads around what death truly means, so don’t be shocked if your children don’t react initially. Most children can understand loss at around five, but how well they grasp the concept depends also on their emotional maturity, the circumstances of the loss and how connected they were to the person.
When your kids do react, their emotions may be all over the place. They might be sad one moment, angry the next and fearful a minute later. They may also think irrationally, like worrying that you might also die soon. The best thing is to reassure them that you’re healthy and will be there for them. Also show them plenty of love and affection during this trying time.
Do let your children stick to their regular school and play routines, as this ensures they get a break from grief, while showing them that life continues after death.
HELP THEM COPE
When children repeatedly ask about the departed person or pet, this could mean that they need to be reassured that things will be all right, or that they can’t quite make sense of what’s happening.
Ask questions to get a clearer idea as to what your child does not understand, so that you can address his or her remaining concerns, Beh suggests. Posing questions like: “How do you feel?” or “What’s the most difficult part for you?” will help him or her make sense of the situation.
If junior cannot find the words to express his or her feelings, Dr Adams recommends reading a book that addresses death and its meaning. Try The Invisible String and I Miss You: A First Look at Death. Alternatively, drawing, writing or role-playing can also help kids express how they feel.
“Allowing your child to say goodbye might be helpful … for some children, writing a letter or poem might be enough. It depends on how your child is able to process it.”
If your kids are old enough, ask if they want to have a funeral for his or her pet, which will help them come to terms with the death. Place it in a small shoebox and bury it in your garden, or flush the fish down the toilet bowl.
Depending on your child’s level of maturity, decide if it will be helpful to bring them to a funeral of a family member. Although looking at a corpse may be scary, it might help your kids understand the finality of the farewell, and since everyone is feeling sad it’s fine to feel the same.
HELP THEM NAVIGATE THE AFTERMATH
Give your children enough time to grieve properly before replacing a dead pet.
Beh notes: “Getting another pet quickly to distract or avoid feeling the loss may suggest to your kids that an ‘escapist’ attitude towards pain and loss is the best approach to take.” Let your children know that the pet can never be replaced but they can have a new friend and companion.
A memory box is a great way to help your child preserve memories of the departed. You can make and decorate the box together, then fill it with photos, handwritten letters and poems. Whenever they’re missing their loved one, they can always look to the memory box for comfort.
A version of this story first appeared on Smart Parents.