If possible, as in the case of a terminal illness, prepare children for death. Use simple, clear language including correct medical terms if the child is capable of understanding them. Be direct about the fact that death means that the body stops working. Share spiritual beliefs as appropriate.
Find a safe, familiar place to tell children about the death. Explain honestly, simply, and clearly that the person has died and how it happened. Answer initial questions. If possible, refer to past experiences with pet death or other deaths in the family.
If the adult that the children feel safest with is unable to effectively communicate with them, consider enlisting the help of another trusted family member or a professional such as a hospital social worker or bereavement counselor.
While children need to see a parents grief, they cannot bear a parent’s burden or substitute for the dead family member. from the beginning, maintain clear boundaries between adult and child roles in the family.
Many children benefit from seeing the deceased’s body. This allows them to grasp the reality of the death and may provide an opportunity to say goodbye.
Funeral, memorial services, and other rituals are opportunities to say goodbye, to express early grief feelings, and to process the reality of the loss. Encourage children to attend services or rituals, but let them make their own choices, using adult judgment as your guide.
Invite children to help with planning rituals. This acknowledges and legitimizes their grief while ensuring that the ritual will reflect their experiences of and with the deceased.
Assist children in identifying key thoughts and feelings, and respect whatever is expressed. Model expressing feelings and ask open ended questions. Don’t be afraid to say or hear “I don’t know”.
Let children know that they may say goodbye in their own ways. Ask them if they want to put a personal item (stuffed animal, drawing, letter, photograph, etc.) in the casket or in a place of remembrance.
Plan ahead to hold the ritual in a safe, comfortable place. Plan to have some key person in children’s lives to be present throughout the ritual to comfort and assist the child (often parents are too overwhelmed).
Prepare children in advance for the funeral or ritual by explaining in age appropriate language what to expect. Let them know who will be there, what will happen, what the room/location will look like, if there will be open or closed casket, and whatever other information is available. If possible, rehearse the ritual, including burial or ash scattering if the child will be present. Let the children know that others may be crying and it’s okay for them to cry, too.
Offer the child an opportunity to play an active role in the ritual, by speaking or in some other capacity. Support teens by offering a youth-only gathering if desired. Consider including an open-comment time as part of the ritual.
If possible, develop a personalized symbol (e.g. an angel) to represent the deceased’s new role in children’s lives and use this symbol in some way during the ceremony.
During the Funeral or Ritual
Provide a quiet children’s area with toys, art supplies, and games where children can retreat.
Provide plenty of attention, physical comfort and hugs. Remind them that it’s okay to cry.
Be aware that children may show intermittent grief. This is their way of coping and does not reflect lack of caring or absence of grief. Be a good observer of how children are doing and be patient and respectful of how they cope.
Allow viewing of the body or cremated remains if children wish it. Each child may have individual needs and wishes which should be respected.
Arrange for viewing of burial, committal, or ash-scattering if the child so desires.
After the Funeral or Ritual
Offer opportunities to talk about feelings and about the ritual. Allow children to decide who they want to talk to at the reception and in the days thereafter.
Spend private time alone with children in the days following the ritual. Continue to discuss spiritual beliefs, including what happens after someone dies. Children may need to talk about this for many months; be patient and answer questions as best you can.
Provide ongoing opportunities for saying goodbye and memorializing the loved one.
Involve the children in sorting the deceased’s personal effects, and allow them to keep a few belongings if at all possible. Children often take comfort in wearing articles of clothing or jewelry that belonged to the loved one.
Hold “family meetings” to plan future rituals and memorials. These will be important as children integrate the loss and understand it more fully. Use these meetings to discuss the changing identity and responsibilities in the family and how each person is feeling about them.
Convey that it’s okay to laugh and play. Recognize that most children express and resolve emotions and conflicts in their art and play. Also recognize that laughter is healing.
Maintain good boundaries around adult vs. child roles and be aware that some children are especially vulnerable to becoming overly “parentified”.
Be aware that birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, and other special days can bring up intense grief feelings. consider holding special family rituals on these days and provide extra comfort and attention.
Deal with your own grief. make time for yourself and model self-care for children. Only by taking of your own needs will you be able to take care of theirs!