Tag Archives: loss of a sibling

Supporting Children When a Loved One Dies

Hey fam,

Give yourself some kudos for delving into this difficult conversation about end of life (EOL). I first would like to start with a reflection**. Think of a time in your youth when someone you knew and loved died. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How did you find out? How did adults communicate with you about their death?
  • If it was a death from illness/injury, were you prepared ahead of time?
  • How were you included in the events and rituals around the death?

I invite you to come back to these questions if ever in doubt about how to approach this. The death of a loved one is hard enough, but considering how to navigate that with a child may seem daunting and insurmountable. Adults concerned about having end of life (EOL) conversations with children argue that it may traumatize the child or affect their ability to cope. On the contrary, open, consistent communication and planning around a loved one’s death helps to promote meaningful engagement, strengthen relationships, establish a sense of safety, build trust, and equip children with the emotional regulation tools that they need to cope with life’s challenges. This conversation calls for us to be brave and reckon with our own coping around death.

The Talk

So, where do you even begin? It’s important to tap into how you’re feeling. Center yourself with some deep breaths, debrief with a trusted support person, and get all the accurate information that is available to you in order to have this conversation. Create the conditions for a safe and supportive conversation. Choose a place that is familiar, comfortable, and private. It’s okay to have 1-2 other trusted adults there, especially if they are in a caregiving role to the child(ren). If there are multiple children, it’s a good idea to share the news with them all together, especially if they are close enough in age/developmental level. If there is a vast difference in age (toddler/teen), then it would be okay to separate the children by developmental stages so that you can break down the information in developmentally appropriate language. I’ll give some examples in a bit.

Our role as adults is to model behavior for the children in our lives. So it is absolutely okay to be sad, openly cry, and take breaks during this talk.

  • You can start the conversation by letting your child know that you have something sad and difficult to share.
  • Reassure them that they are not in trouble, that they are safe, and that the adult(s) in the room will be available to care for them and comfort them through this process.
  • Start with what they may already know about the illness or circumstances of injury/death. Children know a lot more than adults give them credit for.
  • As you explain further, it’s important to be clear and direct.
    • With young children especially, avoid coded language and euphemisms. Use the words “died” and “dying” as opposed to some popular phrases like “we lost Grandpa”, “they’re in a better place”, “Aunt Sheila left us”. Young children are quite literal in their comprehension of language. So imagine if they hear these coded phrases and think, “Well if Grandpa is lost, let’s go find him.”, “What’s a better place for mommy than being here with our family?”, or “What did we do to make Aunt Sheila leave?”.
    • Be direct in stating the actual illness, e.g. “She has cancer”, “His brain was hurt in a car accident” instead of just “They were sick and died”. Young children don’t do well with vague and metaphoric language.
    • Young children may need you to define in simple terms what it means to die. For example:
      • “When someone dies, their body stops working. The person no longer talks, walks, breathes, or eats. After someone dies, we don’t get to see them face to face anymore. We can still look at pictures of them, talk about them, and always remember them in our hearts.”
      • Cultural and religious explanations may add an extra layer of comfort to this conversation.
  • Emphasize ways that they can foster continued bonds with the loved one, during the dying process and after their death.
    • Some ways that they can engage meaningfully with their loved one and make memories; Record the love one’s voice, take videos of the child and loved one together, handprint/fingerprint crafts, letters, and a memory box
  • Leave time and room for emotions, questions, and reassurances
    • Children may not emote right away and need time to process the info. You may witness a wide range of emotions. They may seem unfazed, numb, fearful of another loved one dying, distracted, distraught, etc. Just continue to validate and normalize their emotions.
    • Children have this remarkable ability to pick up their grief, and then put it right back down until they’re ready to face it again. Their grieving process is not as continuous as it is for adults. Also, people often underestimate the grieving process of children who are on the spectrum, neurodivergent, or have cognitive delays. They absolutely grieve in their own way and I’ve included some resources on how to support them.
    • Encourage an open-door policy where they can come back to you to revisit the conversation and ask questions as you all move forward.

Choices

Consider giving the child a choice in HOW they want to engage after they’ve been informed about a loved one’s end of life. Some children may want to visit with the loved one as they are dying, some children may not. Some children may want to attend the funeral service and burial, others may not. Helping children to make informed choices during this time can help to bolster their sense of autonomy at a time when so many things are beyond their control. Also, children may be less likely to experience regrets and resentment when they are invited to make choices about their own participation in a loved one’s end of life, as opposed to when adults have made decisions for them without seeking their input. Giving the child a choice will impact how they reflect on their relationship with grief for years to come.

Community

It’ll be helpful to discuss with the child any potential changes in their daily routine, how the family will navigate around the dying process, and what to expect after the death. Help them identify support people within their community (school staff, spiritual leaders, coaches, neighbors). Speak to their school’s counselor about providing extra support in school. Seek the support of a professional experienced with end of life.

Part of my role as an end of life doula/consultant is to help families facilitate these difficult conversations, prepare for the death of a loved one, help them with planning and making funeral arrangements, linking families to community resources that can help with reduced funeral costs, and educate folks on how to financially and legally protect their families after their death. I’m especially passionate about helping families who have the unfortunate circumstance of navigating the death of a child. Please feel free to schedule a consultation if you’d like to learn more, or if you’d like to refer me to someone who is in need of these services.

Check out the links below for some additional book and video resources to help support children through grief. Should I do a Part 2 about how to help children cope after the death of a loved one? As always, I love hearing from you and am looking forward to the conversations that this will inspire.

 

Warmly,

Doula Jo

Resources:

Sesame Street Grief Videos

Children with Special Needs Grieve

Book: The Invisible String

Book: When Dinosaurs Die

Teen Grief Toolkit

Children’s Grief Support

**Information adapted from a presentation I co-created with Certified Child Life Specialist Polly Hurlburt, M.Ed, CCLS