Help Your Child Cope With Grief

IN A busy bookstore, an exasperated mother cried out to a salesperson: “You have a store full of books but nothing to help my child!” The mother was seeking guidance to help her young son cope with the sudden death of a close family member.

This mother’s concern was valid. How distressing it is for a young child to face the reality of death! Children thrive under the care of their family, yet death can take away a loved one with whom a child has formed a close bond. As a parent, how can you help your child when such a loss is imminent or has already occurred?

Of course, faced with the loss of a loved one, you may be struggling to cope with your own emotions; you may feel anguished and preoccupied. However, you must not forget that your child needs your support. “Children overhear bits and pieces of conversations, and, when left to their own devices, frequently distort or misinterpret information,” notes a publication distributed by a hospice in Minnesota, U.S.A. It further states: “Children need to be told the facts.” So it may be wise to explain the facts to your children, according to their level of understanding. This is challenging, since children may differ greatly in their ability to comprehend what is happening.—1 Corinthians 13:11.

How to Explain Death

Some researchers say that when talking to a child about death, parents should be careful about using such terms as “sleeping,” “lost,” or “gone away.” Using such expressions without explaining or qualifying them may confuse a young child. Of course, Jesus used sleep as an illustration for death and fittingly so. Remember, though, that he was not speaking to children. Further, he explained the illustration. Jesus told his followers: “Lazarus our friend has gone to rest.” The disciples, grown-ups though they were, “imagined [Jesus] was speaking about taking rest in sleep.” So Jesus clarified the matter: “Lazarus has died.” (John 11:11-14) If adults need such clear explanations, how much more so do our children!

“A parent may try to soften her language when explaining death to her child,” say authors Mary Ann Emswiler and James P. Emswiler, “but by doing so, she may plant ideas in his head that weren’t there before and that may be frightening or harmful.” For instance, simply telling a young child that a deceased loved one is only sleeping may cause the child to fear that if he goes to sleep at night, he may not wake up again. If told only that a deceased loved one has “gone away,” a young child may feel rejected or abandoned.

When trying to explain death to a child, many parents have found that children understand simple, direct words more readily than they do abstract concepts or euphemisms. (1 Corinthians 14:9) Researchers recommend that you encourage your child to ask questions and talk about his concerns. Frequent conversations may help you to clear up misunderstandings and could reveal other ways to assist your child.

A Reliable Source of Guidance

During a period of mourning, your child will look to you for direction, support, and answers. Where, then, can you find reliable information on the subject of death? Many people have found the Bible to be a reliable source of comfort and hope. It provides definitive information on the origin of death, the condition of the dead, and the hope for the dead. The plain truth that “the dead . . . are conscious of nothing at all” should help your child to realize that his deceased loved one is not suffering. (Ecclesiastes 9:5) Moreover, in the Bible, God extends the hope that we will see our dead loved ones again on a paradise earth.—John 5:28, 29.

By turning to the Holy Scriptures, you can help your child to learn that the Bible provides reliable guidance and comfort in every distressing situation. At the same time, your child will observe that you as a parent depend on God’s Word for direction on important matters in life.—Proverbs 22:6; 2 Timothy 3:15.

Your Questions Answered

In helping your child to cope with bereavement, you may encounter situations that puzzle you. What can you do?* Let us consider some common questions that may come up.

Should I hide my grief from my child? It is natural to want to protect your child. But is it wrong for your child to see that you are grieving? Many parents have found it best to be honest about their sorrow, thus showing their child that it is normal to grieve. Some have discussed with their children Bible examples of individuals who openly grieved. For example, Jesus gave way to tears when his dear friend Lazarus died. Jesus did not hide his emotions.—John 11:35.

Should my young child attend proceedings at a funeral home or at the graveside or be present at a memorial service? If a child is to attend, it may be wise to explain to him in advance what to expect, including why the service is held. Of course, in some circumstances, parents may decide that there are good reasons for their children not to be present for all or part of the services to be held. Children who are present at funeral services conducted by Jehovah’s Witnesses may benefit from the Bible-based discourse that is given. In addition, the “tender affection” and love evident among those present can make it a meaningful and soothing experience, even for a child.—Romans 12:10, 15; John 13:34, 35.

Should I talk to my child about the deceased loved one? Some researchers say that if you completely avoid this topic, your child may mistakenly conclude that you are keeping something secret about the deceased or are trying to erase all memory of that one. Author Julia Rathkey observes: “It’s important to help children learn to live with the memory and not to be afraid.” Speaking freely about the deceased, including mentioning positive aspects of that one’s personality and life, may well help in the grieving process. Witness parents comfort their children with the Bible’s hope of the resurrection to a paradise earth, where sickness and death will be no more.—Revelation 21:4.

How can I help my child while he is mourning? During the grieving process, your child may experience physical symptoms, perhaps illness. The child may become angry or troubled because of feeling helpless and frustrated. Do not be surprised if your child is plagued with guilt, clings more closely to you, or panics if you arrive late or become ill. How can you handle your child’s turmoil? Your child should never feel that you do not notice that something is wrong. So be perceptive and monitor the situation. Try not to misjudge or underestimate how much your child is affected by death. Provide regular reassurance, and encourage questions and open communication. You can strengthen your child’s hope—and yours as well—“through the comfort from the Scriptures.”—Romans 15:4.

How soon should I restore family routines and other activities? Maintain as many routines as possible, say experts. Keeping healthy routines is said to be an effective tool for managing grief. Among Jehovah’s Witnesses, many parents have found that keeping up a good spiritual routine, which includes having a regular family Bible study and attending Christian meetings, can have a stabilizing and strengthening effect on the family.—Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Hebrews 10:24, 25.

Until the time when Jehovah God brings an end to sickness and death, children will from time to time be confronted by the tragedy of death. (Isaiah 25:8) However, with proper reassurance and support, children can be helped to cope successfully with the loss of a loved one.

[Footnote]

The information presented in this article is not intended to establish rules. It should be noted that circumstances and customs vary greatly from country to country and from culture to culture.

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Encourage your child to ask questions and talk about his concerns

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Maintain routines, including your family Bible study