Losing a loved one is one of the most difficult experiences you’ll ever have to face in life. When a child loses a beloved grandparent or someone else close to them, they often have a hard time dealing with the finality of death. Grasping the fact that they won’t be able to talk to, see, or spend time with their loved one again in this life often comes as a shock, even if their family member was suffering from a prolonged illness. If the death is sudden and unexpected, the loss may be even more devastating.

It’s important to know what to say to your child when they face the loss of a loved one. Here are some helpful tips for choosing your words carefully during this challenging time.

Bring the Subject Up in Advance

One of the best ways you can help your child to cope with the death of a loved one is to start talking to them about the subject before they ever lose a loved one. This may seem a bit morbid, but it’s a fact of life that’s best dealt with directly rather than avoided. If a loved one is gravely ill or advanced in age, you may want to gently bring up the subject sometime when you and your child are alone. Ask them questions such as, “Have you ever thought about what it’s going to be like when grandpa isn’t alive anymore?” If they don’t seem to be understanding what you’re talking about, consider using illustrations from nature, such as flowers that grow, blossom, fade, and die. Teaching them to accept the reality and inevitability of death can help them to be more emotionally prepared when it happens.

Talk to Your Child About Funerals

If your child has never been to a funeral before, explain to them what they can expect to happen. For many children, the sight of their loved one’s body in a casket unable to move or respond will be quite upsetting. If arrangements are made for cremation or there is a closed casket service they may wonder where their loved one’s body is, and you can answer that question in a way that would be appropriate for their age and emotional state. For example, you could say, “Grandma wanted us to remember the way she looked when she was alive, so we aren’t going to look at her body during the funeral service.” In either case, make sure the child knows in advance what funerals are like. Tell them that this is a way for people to say their last goodbyes and pay their respects. It’s a time to feel free to express their grief.

Let your child know that it’s okay to cry at a funeral, but if they don’t feel like crying that they don’t have to. Some kids feel guilty when they go to a funeral service or visitation and don’t feel the need to cry or can’t bring themselves to cry. This is actually a common phenomenon. Let your child know that it’s perfectly normal either way.

Taking a child to a visitation or funeral of someone they aren’t closely related to and don’t know as well may be a good way to get them to feel more comfortable with the concept of death before it happens to a close relative.

Be Ready and Willing to Answer Your Child’s Questions

If your child is curious about death, or if someone in your family is close to passing away, it’s normal for them to have questions. Many children will wonder about what happens after death. Be prepared to answer their questions as honestly and tactfully as you can, or help them to find someone who can. You may want to contact a clergy member for guidance in this area. Let your child know that you want to help them understand this new and often frightening concept.

Offer Words of Reassurance

Sometimes when a loved one passes away children begin to worry about other people dying and leaving them. Let them know that they have many people in their life that love and care for them. Some kids want to know who they would go to live with if their parents died. This is an important legal matter that every parent should have settled and put into their wills. Once you’ve taken care of these legal designations, it’s okay to let your child know who their legal guardians would be if you were to pass away unexpectedly. Tell them that many people in our modern era live long lives.

As a parent, introducing new experiences to your child is part of your responsibility. Some of those will be fun experiences, like their first time going to a sporting event. Others will be painful, like facing their first loss of a loved one. If you show patience, love, and understanding, you’ll go a long way toward preparing your child for this difficult time

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