Loss is a part of life. Most people have figured this out by adulthood and developed the skills necessary to navigate the rough waters of loss and find their way to the other side.
But when a child is confronted with loss, it is a different experience. Children often lack the cognitive ability to understand the permanence of death. They can have a hard time seeing the loss apart from themselves and may assign themselves blame where none is due. Along with this, they can be deeply impacted by the emotions of those closest to them.
In the last two years, we have had to walk the road of loss with our now 6-year-old daughter several times. Once when our church lost a beloved associate pastor, then with the sudden passing of a friend involved in the children’s ministry, and most recently, the unexpected loss of a wonderful young woman who was also our daughter’s Sunday School teacher. In addition to these are the regular reminders in our family of the babies we have lost in pregnancy – babies whose names our daughter knows, whom she knows as her siblings in Heaven.
While we would rather not had to deal with such heaviness at this stage in her life, given the circumstances we could not avoid it. Here are some things we have done to help our daughter process the enormity of loss in a way her young heart could understand.
- We talk about Heaven. We didn’t wait for tragedy to strike before we brought it up. Our belief in Heaven is firmly rooted in our faith, so talking about Heaven comes naturally. We talk about it regularly, in the same way that we talk about Ohio or New Jersey or Florida. It is a real place where some people who we love live, and where we will live someday, too. Being in Heaven is beautiful, not scary.
- We talked about illness. When we encountered illness in these circumstances, we told our daughter about it. We explained why someone was feeling bad, why they were in the hospital, and we began including them in our regular prayer time. We didn’t avoid it or hide was was happening. As much as we didn’t like it and even found it uncomfortable, some conversations just have to happen.
- We talked about prayer and God. We see prayer not as a celestial candy machine, but as an ongoing conversation between us and our Father who loves us, and we want our daughter to have the same understanding. Therefore, one of the things we talked about was how sometimes, even though we ask God to heal someone, His plan does not include being healed on Earth, but that He still loves us. We knew in these situations that the outcome may not be what we wanted, and we did not want her to be blindsided by having an expectation that prayer = automatically getting what you want … and then having a different outcome.
- We talked about death. When our loved ones passed away, we told our daughter. We didn’t use confusing terms like “sleeping.” We tried to be straightforward about how their body stopped working, and their spirit went to be with God in Heaven.
- We talked about how we felt and why. We didn’t hide the fact that even though Heaven is wonderful, we were sad because we would miss our friends. We let her know it was okay to feel sad too. This also helped put words to her feelings so she would understand them better.
- We didn’t give a reason for it or try to explain it. Most tragedies have no good explanation or reason. Trying to find one tends to short-circuit the natural and needed expression of emotion and grief in an effort to make the bereaved “feel better.” We told our daughter that we didn’t know why our friend died, but we knew we could still trust God and His love.
- We shielded her from our most intense feelings. At the same time, we tried to save our most intense emotions for times when we were alone. This is not because we didn’t want to be honest with our daughter, but because kids can be easily scared at the idea of their parents not being in control. We wanted our daughter to know it was okay to be sad, but not to be scared by emotional intensity that she didn’t understand.
- We went to the visitation and funeral together. Our daughter has been to many now. We talked with her about what each of these is, and what she can say to someone in the family, and what behavior is expected. She is used to attending church, so sitting through a funeral service has not been that difficult. We have never made her look at the deceased at a viewing, and a couple of times, I deliberately shielded her from it. But one time, she wanted to, and so we did, together, and talked about how our body contains our spirit, and when our body wears out and stops working, our spirit lives on. It did not traumatize her because it was her choice and we allowed it, knowing she was in an emotional place maturity-wise to handle it.
- We check in with her every now and then. We still talk about our loved ones, and from time to time I will ask how she is feeling about it. We don’t make her talk about it. We keep the lines of communication open, but if she is in a frame of mind to build with blocks or talk about princesses, so be it. The door for communication is constantly open. Sometimes we walk through it and sometimes we pass by, but we always let her know that it is safe to talk about them.
One thing we didn’t do is hold her to adult expectations. Kids process grief differently from adults. They can be overcome with sadness one moment and playing outside the next. And as odd as it may seem to an adult, that’s okay!
It seems cruel for a child to be confronted with the ugliness of loss at a young age, but with some guidance from you, he or she can learn from the experience and, as a result, become a more sensitive person, both now and in the future.