Helping Your Older Child Deal With Death
Death. It’s inevitable. If you’ve ever known someone whose time passed, you know just how hard it can be to deal with death and cope with loss.
It’s especially challenging if you need to help your child deal with death, significantly moreso if you are also grieving.
Heather O’Shea is a blogger and freelance writer who spent ten years in the business world before spending the next seventeen years teaching in an independent middle/high school. She recently retired from that career to work full time as a freelance writer.
Heather writes the blog Live Love Leave: It’s What We Do. She has been writing since she could hold a pencil. Her work has appeared in The Sun, the Daily Good, the Notre Dame Review, Blue Mesa Review, and Cold Mountain Review. Heather’s work has received awards, including second place (poetry) in The Southwest Writers 2006 Annual Contest and a Judges Special Citation in the Notre Dame Sesquicentennial Year Poetry Contest.
It is through her various experiences that Heather has come to be an expert on life – including the end of it. I sincerely hope you never have to help your child cope with loss, but if you do need to help them deal with death, the tips Heather outlines will have you headed in the right direction.
5 Tips To Help Your Teens and Pre-Teens Deal With Death
As the youngest of six kids growing up in a large extended family, I encountered death early and often. My childhood memories are full of visiting funeral homes to gaze on the open caskets of great-aunts I barely knew and eating post-funeral ham sandwiches and cookies in church basements.
Since I became a teacher seventeen years ago, I’ve seen many young people encounter the death of a loved one for the first time. When a child in my school died, I got a crash course in helping adolescents navigate their own grief while trying not to lose myself in my own. I realized I had a lifetime of resources available to help me grieve that most of them didn’t yet have.
When death comes into the world of a child, it’s as though she jumps to the final exam without ever learning the material on the test. Here are some things I’ve realized most adolescents don’t know and some thoughts on how we can help them navigate their feelings when a loved one dies.
1. There is No Right or Wrong Way to Grieve
Adolescents worry that there is a “right way” to grieve. They wonder if they are feeling “sad enough” or “too sad.” They often think there is a specific way they are supposed to feel and act based on how close they were to the person who died. They don’t know the formula, and most of them don’t know how to ask.
Be explicit–tell them that there is no secret code. Let them know that grieving is a process that unfolds differently for every person. Share a story about a time your own grief surprised you. Tell them that it’s ok to feel exactly what they are feeling, even if they don’t understand it.
2. Provide Opportunities for Connection
Adolescents want to connect with their parents way more than many of them are willing to acknowledge, especially when someone dies. I remember a conversation with a student I’ll call Eli. He was frustrated because his mother kept asking him how he felt. “I don’t know how I feel,” he erupted. “I know she’s trying to help, but I keep snapping at her, and then I feel bad about that, too.”
If Eli reminds you of your child, “Sometimes when I…” can be a great conversation opener. For example, “Sometimes when I drive by Grandma’s house I get sad.” Or, “Sometimes when I drive by the spot where the accident happened I get so angry.” You’ve shown your child that it’s ok to be in pain and to talk about those feelings.
Follow that statement with “Does that ever happen to you?” Chances are, your child might say something like, “Not exactly, but sometimes when I…” If that doesn’t happen, and your child simply mumbles her usual, “No,” that’s ok, too. Your child knows the door is open. You might even overhear her using that opening line later in a conversation with a friend.
3. Stories Help Heal
Adolescents don’t want their grief to interfere with yours. They know that if they’ve lost a grandparent, you’ve lost a parent, and they don’t want to make you more sad. Often they think that if they talk about the person who died, they might be hurting you. When my student died, I noticed that kids began shying away from saying his name.
When I started asking them questions like, “What’s the funniest thing he ever did?” I saw them begin to relax. They need to learn that telling stories helps them heal, and that our love for a person doesn’t end with their death. Share your own stories of the funniest, happiest, goofiest, most special moments and invite your child to share his.
4. Help Them Channel Their Feelings Into Action
When confronted with overwhelming feelings, it’s normal for adolescents to want to act. The students at my school organized a morning walk to the Rio Grande where they shared memories about their friend and threw carnations into the water.
We can help children by honoring this drive to action.
A child might make a scrapbook of memories, or create a play-list of songs that remind them of the person they’ve lost, or participate in a fundraising walk related to the cause of death. Depending on the circumstances, they might want to start a club as a support group for their group of peers who might also be grieving.
It’s ok if your child doesn’t want to do anything like that, but if they do, facilitate their efforts. I saw many children start to regain their grip on life when they could channel their feelings into action.
5. Reassure Them It’s Okay to Live and Laugh
Finally, when someone dies, adolescents don’t know that it’s ok for life to return. They feel guilty if they laugh “too soon.” One young girl told me, “I was accidentally enjoying myself at the soccer game, and then I felt bad because I remembered I should be sad about my grandma.” Another told me he felt guilty for being hungry. “How can I be thinking about food when my friend is dead?” he asked.
Adolescents haven’t lived enough to understand that all of life is an elaborate dance between joy and sorrow. We can help them understand that it’s normal and healthy for life to call us back to joy and laughter. We can reassure them that the same drive to live runs through all of us, and show them that they honor their loved one by living their own life completely.
Sometimes it is helpful to get back into a regular routine that your family is accustomed to in order to get back to living life without the one who has died.
Sometimes Children Need Space, Sometimes They Need Comfort
When my school community lost a student, I spent a full evening at the funeral home, comforting grieving children. I was surprised by how many of the kids came alone. Some drove by themselves and others were dropped off by a parent, as if they were heading into swim practice.
Of course adolescents need space to grapple with loss, and sometimes the most important thing a parent can do is to step back to let a child figure out a problem for herself. But that night at the funeral home, both the children and I were grateful for the parents who stayed.
There are many additional sources of inforation online to assist you in helping your older child deal with death and cope with loss. Below are a small collection that I think are worthwhile when you’re struggling to help your teen or preteen deal with death.
- Kids Health – Helping Your Child Deal With Death. (It includes links to more specific topics on helping children cope with loss as well).
- Psychology Today – The Do’s and Don’ts of Talking with a Child about Death
- National Institutes of Health Clinical Centre – Talking to children about death. This is a ten page PDF document.
- Live, Love, Leave – Hard Days. This post doesn’t provide direct assistance in helping a child deal with death or cope with loss, however, you might find it useful, nonetheless, as an inspirational and personal tale of dealing with the death of my mother-in-law.