British Columbia·Point of View

Dealing with death: How to help kids after the loss of a loved one

Death is an inevitable part of life, and one that parents and their children will eventually face. Whether it's a close relative, a friendly neighbour or intimate friend, the pain and sadness can be hard for everyone to process - especially kids who are experiencing grief for the first time.

Death is inevitable — but it hurts. How can you help your kids grieve?

Death can be hard for kids to process — but parents can help their children grieve by being honest about it. (Jose Luis Pelaez/Getty Images)

This story is part of Amy Bell's Parental Guidance column, which airs on CBC Radio One's The Early Edition.

Death is an inevitable part of life, and one that parents and their children will eventually face. Whether it's a close relative, a friendly neighbour or intimate friend, the pain and sadness can be hard for everyone to process — especially kids who are experiencing grief for the first time. 

From a developmental standpoint, even young children begin to grasp the concept of death and permanency.  Long before ever experiencing it, many kids will ask big questions about life and what happens when it's over. Age, family faith and experience can all shape their perception and understanding. 

Be honest about death

Emily Cordonier-Carroll and her family went through the most unimaginable pain when they found out the son she was pregnant with wouldn't survive. 

She and her husband, Leo, had to process their grief — while also explaining to their two young children that the brother they were so excited to welcome wouldn't be coming home.

But after talking to professionals about the best way to move forward — they proceeded with open and truthful discussions about Lachlan and his death. 

"Trying to be as honest with them as possible ... can provide a very healing experience for everyone." says Cordonier-Carroll.

Kids may feel responsible for a death — or for preventing one. 

But keep in mind is that kids are inherently self centred — and I don't mean that in a negative way. They are biologically designed to filter the world through the lens of how it impacts them and if they will still be safe. 

Its very important when speaking about someone's death to be honest, so that children don't interpret it as their fault. Sonja Latifpour, a registered social worker and child psychotherapist, says kids can sometimes take on the burden of a loved one's passing.

"Often when they are not given some explanation about what happened around the death —  because children are these magical thinkers — they assume they had something to do with the death, "says Latifpour. "If you can be part of the cause of someone's death, you can also be a preventative measure in someone's death."

But children rarely experience a death that isn't equally or more impactful for their parents. And while it's very healthy to set aside some time to fully express your own pain and sadness away from the kids, remember that honestly expressing your own grief — and making sure your kids know you will still be able to take care of them —  can help everyone heal. 

"I found myself getting comfort. It wasn't more upsetting" says Cordonier-Carroll. "Being able to say, yeah, I am sad. And that's OK.'" 

When someone close dies, you become rife with grief. My family recently lost my mom and we're still processing, but I'm proud of how open my children are with their fears and tears — and how accepting they are about mine. 

Collectively, I think we need to shift our view of death and grief.

If we can be more open about the pain  — and the steps we take to climb out of it — it might provide a lifeline for someone who finds themselves drowning in an ocean of sadness.

And that lifeline could be especially helpful for little ones who are still learning how to swim in a big sea of emotions.


Amy Bell is a digital contributor to CBC. She can be heard weekdays on The Early Edition as the traffic and weather reporter and parenting columnist.


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