Talking to your children about losing a loved one can be the toughest conversation you’ll ever have. But, according to Petrea King, founder of the Quest for Life Foundation, avoiding the subject altogether can create issues in the long term.
"Explaining death to a child means you have to confront your own mortality and that’s something a lot of parents understandably shrink away from," she says.
She spoke to Kinderling Conversation about some sensitive and beautiful ways to make that difficult moment a little easier for you and your family.
Listen to Petrea's interview with Kinderling Conversation:
1. Create a breathing space
"If the question comes up at an inopportune moment (driving etc.) create a little breathing space for yourself by saying “That’s a fabulous question!” Tell your child that now is not the right moment to have this conversation, but you’ll make a time when you can sit down and talk about it together. That way, if you’re feeling really thrown by their question and don’t know what to say, you don’t get roped into fumbling your way through an explanation."
2. Use analogies kids understand
"One of the loveliest - and simplest - ways to explain death, even to a fairly young child, is to say that death is like a balloon. When a balloon is full of air we love it, but when the air goes out of the balloon, it’s just a piece of coloured rubber. What makes the balloon really beautiful is the air that’s inside it.
That’s like the spirit - or the energy or the soul, or however you like to explain it to your child. This is what shines out of people’s eyes, what’s reflected in their smiles, what you feel in their hugs. But when the energy or spirit leaves you’re just left with the body. The spirit, depending on your religious or philosophical beliefs, goes to heaven or into everything that’s beautiful. It goes into your heart so that the person you loved is always with you."
3. Send a rainbow
"Love never dies. Even when a person has gone the memory of that person remains in our hearts for as long as we have hearts. Encourage your child to recognise that they can always send love to the person they have lost. Get them to imagine sending a rainbow from their heart to their loved one’s heart. Put a photograph of Grandma or Grandpa on their bedside table and before they go to sleep at night they can send their rainbow."
4. Rehearse what you’re going to say
"If you’re feeling really overwhelmed, go to a room by yourself and rehearse the words you need to say to your child out loud. That way, you’ve heard the words coming out of your mouth and you know you’re capable of getting them out.
Be careful about how you label your emotions too. Rather than saying “I am sad” say “I feel sad now, but later I’ll be able to laugh again.” Help your child recognise that we move in and out of feelings all the time, but none of them are who we are.
5. Give the facts and let them ask questions
"If there’s been an accident resulting in death, tell your child what has happened. Make sure the environment is quiet, private and conducive to this difficult conversation. You need to provide a space where your child can ask questions and they need to be given simple, factual answers.
Be guided by the child (and their age) as to the amount of detail given. Remember, children can imagine much worse things in their mind than the reality of a situation."
6. Get on the same level as your child
"Physically put yourself at your child’s level, whether that’s sitting on the floor on in a chair. Don’t talk down to your child. Give them the opportunity to digest the information and come and ask you questions. Tell them “I’m always happy to speak to you about this."
7. Don’t avoid the conversation
"Kids are very tuned into the subtle emotional realm and when someone dies, they know a major change has taken place in the family. They need to feel included. If you avoid talking about it, you leave your child feeling a little confused and bewildered because something quite momentous has happened but no-one’s talking about it or mentioning the person’s name again."
8. Get them to draw a picture
"Try and find ways to help your child put their feelings into words. Exteriorising things means they’re not overwhelmed with their private anguish. If they’re having difficulty using words, get them to draw or paint a picture for the person they’ve lost and then put that picture up somewhere. You can even create a special section dedicated to Grandma with photos and drawings. This normalises for children the comings and goings in life."
9. Use nature as a metaphor
"Explain to your child that a caterpillar has to let go of being a caterpillar in order to become a butterfly. This gives your child the sense of life continuing in some more subtle form. From a quantum physics perspective, as much as a spiritual perspective, everything is energy and the energy of love goes on."
10. It’s okay to cry
"Let your kids know you feel sad and that it’s appropriate to cry. But show them that after you’ve had a good cry and given each other a hug, you get up and make a cup of tea. That way you teach your child that it’s okay to cry, but afterwards you mop yourself up and get on with life. You don’t want to teach your child that you never go near feelings that are going to make you cry. "
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