By Maureen McElroy, LCMFT
As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, we know that there will be many deaths in our communities. Unfortunately, it is likely that there may be one or more deaths that impact the lives of our children. While it may be difficult to face this fact, it makes sense to be prepared to help our children through these difficult times ahead.
Children develop healthy, appropriate responses to death when parents are honest about death. When your preschooler asks about the dead squirrel in the street that was hit by a car, speak honestly. If your child comes across a dead bird, explain that it is dead. Tell her that the bird cannot breathe or move or eat anymore like it did when it was alive. Share that when animals die, room is made for new living creatures. If a pet goldfish dies, rather than replace it in hopes that your child does not notice, allow her to experience the loss. Trust that although she may be sad, she is also resilient.
Our society is uncomfortable with death. We have many euphemisms for it. When speaking with young children, avoid saying things like, “Grandpa went to sleep,” as that could make children fearful of sleep, or “We lost Grandpa,” as the word “loss” may confuse a young child who understands things literally. Use terms like “die” and “death.” While these words may sound harsh, they are appropriate for our children’s developmental stage.
Similarly, saying “Grandma had a heart attack” might lead a child to think someone “attacked” Grandma’s heart. If you are not sure your child understands the medical terms you use, ask her to explain what your words mean. If she cannot, then try simpler terms.
If a neighbor dies, invite your child to help make a meal for the family. If a pet frog dies, invite her to create a ritual. She might decorate a box for the frog to be placed in before it is buried. If a family member dies, given these days of social distancing, it is unlikely that large funeral gatherings will be allowed. If a ceremony or celebration is happening online, invite your child to attend. If she does not want to, or if she wishes to leave early, let that be OK. Never force a child to attend if she does not want to.
Allow the child to create her own traditions, too. She may want to plant Grandma’s favorite flower or play Grandma’s favorite game. She might want to bake the cookies Grandma liked. Whatever she chooses to do could become a way to celebrate future anniversaries of the death.
Adults often hesitate to show children their grief. Susan Wilensky, a Bereavement Counselor at Montgomery Hospice, notes that one of the best things parents can do for their children is to deal with their own grief. She wants parents to know that it is OK for children to see you cry. They will see that eventually you will also laugh and play. Be sure to talk about the person who died, even if you cry when you do. That will let your child know that it is OK to share her own memories of the person, even if she cries when she does, too. Sharing memories together is healthy and healing.
Wilensky notes that adults hold their grief and process it, whereas children go in and out of their grief more fluidly. Joey might ask about Grandpa very intensely one moment, and then, in the next, he is off running, playing and laughing. This is normal for a child and is not reason for concern.
Also, while many adults like to talk through their grief, children often work through their grief with projects. Maria may want to decorate a special box in which to keep items that belonged to her brother, such as his favorite baseball card, his toy car, and a favorite marble. John may want to make a collage of pictures of himself with his Grandpa.
Losing a parent, a spouse, a child, or another loved one can be overwhelming. You may not feel that you can be there in the way you would like to be for your child and her grief. If that is the case, remember to reach out for help. It’s OK to rely on relatives, friends, and neighbors for support, especially during this time of social distancing. Ask a friend to read a story online to your child, or to play a game. Your child will experience the support from another adult in her life. Take the time you need for your own grief. Contact a therapist. Many are offering teletherapy services. Reach out to one of the twenty organizations in this area that offer grief support, including the Wendt Center in Washington, DC, Montgomery Hospice in Montgomery County, and Capital Caring in Northern Virginia.
Maureen McElroy, LCMFT, is a family therapist in Bethesda and a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP).
This article has been adapted from an earlier article that appeared in Washington Parent magazine in May 2017.
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