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When Children Lose A Loved One

How do you help your children understand and cope with the loss of a loved one be it family or furry friend?

The day will come when your child will lose a family member or beloved pet.

As parents, we are faced with the difficult task of explaining the finality of death and helping our children understand how to cope with loss in their young lives.

Older school-aged children may be better equipped developmentally to understand life and death and the permanence of the latter. Preschool children are often confused by the physical absence of the deceased and often think they might just return one day.   

We grapple with how much information is enough, how much is too much. We wonder if we should guide children through the process of mourning through play, professional counseling, sharing in memories, keeping a journal or all of the above.  Trying to help your child get through the grief of losing a loved one is a daunting task indeed.  

We would love to hear from you on how you have handled this onerous situation.   Please log on and join the discussion. Some of the questions posed include:

  • What is the best approach when discussing death? Straight-shooter? Vague or religious imagery?
  • How has the death of a loved one affected your child at home? at school?
  • What has worked for you? 
  • Have you ever had a well-intentioned response go awry?
Ayo Hart March 02, 2011 at 06:25 PM
In the last two years, my five-year old twins have witnessed the loss of two of our goldens, both of my paternal grandparents, my husband's father and most recently their new goldfish Meagan. At first, when we lost our first golden, Max, they were only 3 and I knew had no concept of the finality of death. They looked for the dog nearly every day for a few months until I think they eventually forgot him not realized he was gone forever. I skirted around the issue of death then, but when we watched their Granddad suffer through cancer last year and saw Megan floating toward the top of the fish tank, it was apparent that they had been all too versed in grief in their short little lives. I have come to the point now, where we have discussed death from so many perspectives with the girls. I didn't think they understood before, but when their Nan arrived at our house last year alone, one of our girls promptly stated "Granddad can't fly on the plane anymore because he's dead forever." You can imagine how heartbreaking that must have been for my husband's mother. Some thought I shared too much with the girls too soon, but I think at the end of the day, every parent has to judge how much information to divulge based on their individual child. One of the twins has definitely been more affected by the losses than the others, but she is also more emotional in general. I must say, it is sometimes therapeutic for us adults to simplify death for the little ones.
Lisa Buchman (Editor) March 02, 2011 at 07:27 PM
We've been lucky and have not lost human family members but have lost treasured pet fish. I found leaving explanations brief to work. Kids tend to mull it over and ask questions and fill in the gaps themselves. Interestingly as they get older, they discuss the fish in new thoughtful ways. Talk of God and heaven comes into play more and more—some of it they get from other sources. Faith plays a role here, but my kids clung to the idea of life going on in a new way after death.
Nelson Salazar March 02, 2011 at 07:46 PM
In November we lost one of our 14 year old standard poodle, we had two. It's hard to express how much Sabrina meant to us. It was difficult to watch her struggle with cancer in the last few months of her life. We knew the time would come when we would have to put her down. Our children were 9, 7 and 4 year old twins at the time. We decided to tell the two older ones that Sabrina had passed away while they were at school. Death is difficult enough but the concept of euthanasia we felt was more than they could handle. The twins were told that Sabrina was sick and had to live on a special farm where she could be cared for by professionals. Four months later they still occasionally ask when is she coming home and they always include her when listing the members of our family. continued....
Nelson Salazar March 02, 2011 at 07:46 PM
Our oldest is our most sensitive and has suffered from separation anxiety ever since our live-in nanny left to raise her own family when he was two years old. We failed to deal with that situation properly opting for ignoring her absence in hopes that at his young age he would soon forget. Our son who had perfect pronunciation began to stutter terribly immediately after she left, he had sensed something was changing a few days before. We were counseled to reach out to her and visit with her so that he could see that she was alive and well and he soon made a complete recovery. I'm always torn with having to tell my kids anything but the 100% truth but as parents we live and learn and constantly try to improve. We can only hope to do better nextime we have to explain a loss to our children.
Lisa Buchman (Editor) March 02, 2011 at 10:16 PM
Thanks for sharing, Nelson. Those are tough choices to make—we actually started by telling our kids that their fish had gone to the fish doctor! The kids were 3 and 5 at the time. But they asked after them so much we eventually told them they died. Any advice on what age is a good age to just tell it like it is?
Christine Young March 03, 2011 at 11:37 AM
We have two elementary aged children who have lost a beloved lab and extended relatives. We found an amazing picture book called Lifetimes that explains all creatures have different lifetimes, a butterfly, a dog, a person. We read it to them when they were little and had questions about death. This has made our conversations easier. Also, we always mention when a friend of ours or theirs has lost a pet or a family member and try to empathize with them. This has helped my children understand the range of emotions that surround death. Faith and reassurance guide our talks as well. The book I mentioned is great to have on hand.
Ayo Hart March 06, 2011 at 02:12 AM
Christine, I found that book this weekend, and it is a great one! The book that I read my girls when their grandfather passed away last spring was When Dinosaurs Die. I should have read it first because I found it to be way too graphic for my preschoolers despite the title and it caught me in some difficult conversations. I'm a self proclaimed nerd and avid reader. What does everyone think about the idea of including a recommended book list with each of our weekly topics?

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