The death of a parent is something that no child should have to face. Sadly, one in 20 will experience the death of their parent before they turn 16. The death of a parent can shake the foundation of a child’s life and remove all elements of safety. During this time, it is especially important that children receive reassurance and encouragement to begin to feel safe again. Many children will worry about dying themselves or having the surviving parent or caregiver die. These are normal concerns for children after a significant death loss. It is important to talk honestly with your child at an age appropriate level, to be aware of and meet the needs of your child. Here are some needs to keep in mind:
Make sure their physiological health is in good condition. When you are talking about important issues surrounding a parent’s death, ensure that kids are rested, hydrated and fed. This will help them to focus on what you are saying and be more connected to the conversation.
Ensure their safety and security. Telling your child about the death in a setting in which they feel safe and secure is important, such as the couch at home. This allows them to better focus on the conversation and gives them a space to express their emotions freely. When possible, get on the eye level of your child. This demonstrates your desire to engage them in conversation and be there for them. Experiencing the death of a parent may cause a child to fear that the other parent or caregiver may also die and they will be alone. Your child will want to know that they will always be taken care of no matter what. Reassure your child that you will always be there for them and you don’t expect anything bad to happen to you. In the rare chance that it does, let them know you have a plan so that they will always be cared for. Talk to them about making a plan together that will help them understand all the people who will care for them.
Let your child know they are loved and give them a sense of belonging. Tell your child that you love them and you are here for them if they have questions, want to talk about it or need a hug. Remind yourself that it is okay for your child to see you expressing emotions. Sharing your emotions helps them know that it is okay to have these emotions when you are grieving.
It is common for children to feel guilty when a parent dies. Frequently they associate it with something that they said or did, such as getting mad at a parent or not listening. Reassure your child that there was nothing they could have done, said or thought that could have caused this. It is not their fault.
Use real words when talking about death and dying. Say died instead of vague and confusing phrases such as “passed away,” “gone,” “lost” or “sleeping.” This helps children feel less confused about what happened to their parent and wondering if they are coming back, especially for younger kids that don’t have the cogitative abilities to fully understand the permanence of death.
Speak to your child with their developmental level in mind. Use words that they will understand and explain words, terms and concepts that they may not understand. Share the most basic but necessary and truthful information they can handle. Then pause and check in with your child. It may sound something like this: “Daddy died. That means his body totally stopped working. He died in a car accident.” Pause, and then ask the child what more they would like to know and if they understand.
Be truthful with your child about what happened. Chances are they will hear the truth eventually, whether if it is from you or not. Telling them the truth now, will build trust for the future.
After a parent dies, a child may experience many different emotions and difficulties. Many of these emotions are very common including anger, guilt, regression and sadness. Tu Nidito’s programs provide support to children dealing with these difficult times and education and support to parents so they can best help their children. If you have additional questions or want to sign up for our free support programs, contact Tu Nidito at (520) 322-9155 or www.tunidito.org .
Written by: Susie Munsey, MSW – Tu Nidito Program Manager from October 2011 to July 2015.
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