When someone dies, particularly someone young, death can be a reminder of how unfair and short life can be. But when a child encounters the death of a classmate, friend or family member, it can rock their entire world.
Children deal with death very differently than adults. Suddenly life may not feel safe. They may even revert to outgrown behaviors such as bedwetting or baby talk. For some teens, they may begin to exhibit anger or depression.
As a parent you may feel unsure about how to start the conversation and what to say, or you may want to protect your child from the pain. But it’s important for your child’s emotional health and well-being to talk openly and honestly about the loss of their friend or classmate.
If you are faced with having to comfort your child or teen through the loss of a friend or classmate, here are some tips to help them cope and navigate through the loss.
It’s important to speak with your child immediately regarding the death in order to prevent them hearing it from someone else. Find a quiet space with no distractions and give them an honest explanation within their limits of understanding; young children interpret things literally. In a recent conversation with Adeola Adelayo, MD, a practicing psychiatrist with Banner Behavioral Health Hospital, she recommended that parents avoid euphemisms, such as “they went to sleep” or “they went on a trip.” This can create confusion and interfere with their ability to appropriately cope with death.
“Your child may be curious about the nature of the death and may want to talk about it,” Dr. Adelayo said. “Answer their questions simply and directly. Don’t be afraid to share that you don’t have all the answers.”
“One of the most important things you can do is to never stop being there for them,” Dr. Adelayo said. “Though your child or teen may not be ready to talk about it yet, don’t take that as a cue to walk away or fill the silence with you talking.”
Being present amid the silence can be therapeutic and speak volumes on how much you really care for them. Since some children aren’t able to express their emotions in words, they may be able to express themselves through doing an art or craft together or looking through photos of them with their friend.
“Go where they want to go, not where you want them to go with their emotions,” Dr. Adelayo warned. “Don’t push or overshare about your experiences unless asked. When they are ready to share or ask questions, you’ll be there and ready.”
Honor the Friend
Children as young as 3 years old can understand the concept of saying goodbye. Research shows that instead of focusing on letting go and moving on, maintaining a link to the loved one can provide comfort and solace and create a new bond to the lost friend. Activities might include putting together a memorial or party to celebrate their life, gathering photos and creating a special album or reliving memories together. Doing something good when they may feel helpless can promote healthy coping.
To Attend the Funeral or Not
“I personally recommend that children under 5 years old not attend the funeral of a friend or classmate as they developmentally may not be able to process it,” Dr. Adelayo cautioned. “Instead, you may choose to visit the grave site or memorial spot after the funeral.” For those older, she says you’ll need to gauge where your child is emotionally. They may want to say goodbye in person, or a funeral may just be too difficult for them.
Though it’s normal for children to experience a wide range of emotions following the death of a close friend or classmate, be on the lookout for unhealthy coping patterns. In time, your child’s emotions should begin to level out. “Most kids, when they have a family supporting them, can begin to process what happened and talk about it within a week or two,” Dr. Adelayo says. If this doesn’t happen, please help your child seek professional help.
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