We all want to protect our children from loss, but unfortunately we can't. They are part of what it means to live. We often find ourselves leaving children out of conversations about death. We avoid or hesitate to talk about it, in addition to being afraid that we will upset or frighten our children or fear that they cannot simply understand the concept of death.
Many types of losses will occur during childhood. The death of a pet can be the first. And the questions start to arise: “Why?”, “Where did he go?”, “Was it my fault?”. The death of a family member or the sudden absence of a friend. Each of these types of loss requires children to deal with emotions that are unfamiliar to them and that lie within themselves. Uncertainties and many doubts will arise.
Preschool children will develop an understanding of death through their own parents' grief. They go through predictable phases of shock, denial, anger, depression, and negotiation and learning how to handle pain on a different level; these stages will inevitably lead to acceptance. But a child's ability to deal with these feelings and pain is more limited.
An unresponsive parent is something children are not used to. The routine and structure that the child knows is changed and this can generate a feeling of insecurity. In the early years of life, a child struggles to realize that important people come back when they leave. But unfortunately this is not always the case.
- “Where did he go? Why? Why did grandpa stop coming to play with me? What happened to grandpa?”
And in these scenarios of loss, the fear of losing all the other people who are important to them inevitably arises, and a perception of vulnerability about themselves may also arise.
So how can we talk to our children about loss?
Listen - let the child ask all the questions he or she has.
Respond honestly and directly – questions may not have an answer, but sharing them is very important.
Explain that death is irreversible – be clear about what death means, don't get the child's hope up.
Help the child with his or her loss of control – we can't control every area of our life, we don't have that power.
Let the child talk about the person who died – celebrating someone helps keep that person's memory alive, but it also allows both of you to deal with the loss more openly. It becomes a shared event and therefore more tolerable.
Be pragmatic – be as concrete and scientific as possible. For children under the age of six it is easier if we explain what death means from a biological point of view.
Rituals, stories and games help children to vocalize emotions that are difficult to deal with.
Don't be afraid to talk about the loss with your children. Doing so is the central key to their understanding and integration.