A truly challenging and life-changing experience for you and your child is the sudden death of a loved one. In many ways, both you and your child are embarking on a shared journey. By following a particular course, you can best assist your child in coping with the sudden death of a loved one.
Provide Timely and Honest Information
Following a sudden death, your initial instinct may be to ease your child into the reality of the situation. You may be inclined to delay telling your child the full story that a loved one has died suddenly. Like many people you may conclude that when a person dies as the result of a more prolonged illness, a child has time to come to terms with the situation. Thus, why not wait a while to fully engage your child about the sudden loss of a loved one. In fact, this is not an advisable course.
If your child is of an age at which he or she can verbally communicate, you need to inform immediately that someone in the family has died suddenly. This information must come from you promptly so that your child does not hear it from someone else.
You need to convey this information in an age-appropriate manner, in a way that is within your child’s ability to comprehend. The explanation should be as honest and direct as possible, again within your child’s ability to understand.
Unless your child is very young (3 to 5 years old) do your best to avoid euphemisms like your family member is lost or asleep. Young children take statements quite literally.
Pay attention to your surroundings when you tell your child that a loved one has died suddenly. Select a setting that is familiar to your child, so that he or she is as comfortable as possible when receiving this information.
You also need to pay attention to your tone of voice. Do your best to use as normal a voice as possible. This will provide your child with confidence that you have matters under some semblance of control. Avoid whispering when you tell your child about the sudden death of a family member. A surprising number of people unintentionally default to whispering when conveying information like this. Whispering typically is not comforting to children and can leave with them with what best can be described as a spooky feeling.
Get Your Own Emotional House in Order
One of the most fundamental steps you must take to help your child cope with the sudden death of a loved one is to get your own emotional house in order.
“If we do, then we’ll be attentive and creative in our responses to children. If we don’t, we’ll be vulnerable to either being numb to their pain, trying to block them from showing it to us, or over-identifying with them and losing a sense of appropriate boundaries,” according to Catherine McCall MS, LMFT, an expert on addressing childhood loss, including the sudden death of a loved one.
This doesn’t mean that you need to have worked through all of your own emotions associated with the sudden death of a loved one. That necessarily requires time and your child needs you now.
What it does mean is that you are not using your child as a tool to address your own emotions associated with the sudden death of a loved one. You must turn to another adult, or even a professional, to provide you that type of support and assistance – not your child.
Explain What Happens Next
When a loved one dies suddenly, the process of planning a funeral and related matters commences nearly at once. Another step you can take to aid your child in coping with the sudden death of a loved one is to explain to them what is going to happen next. (As with other aspects of communicating with your child following the sudden death of love done, the discussion must be age appropriate.)
Tell your child about the funeral or memorial service. Seriously consider involving your child to some degree (and in an age-appropriate way) in planning the funeral or memorial service.
Proper Support Means Appropriate Grieving
A child grieves in his or her own way – as we all do. Grieving the sudden loss of a loved one, including a parent, is a function of a child’s age, maturity level, and the emotional support provided by you and other adults.
With meaningful support, about half of all children who lose a parent (even suddenly) adjust to the loss in a general manner within about a year, according to the Archives of General Psychiatry. In some cases, the period of adjustment will be a bit longer.
A highly-regarded online resource for children that have lost a parent, or other loved one, is Hello Grief. The website provides a wealth of information and supportive resources for young people recovering from the death of a loved one, including a parent.
If a child continues to have issues adapting to and grieving the sudden death of a loved one, seeking professional assistance is recommended. There are counselors and therapists that address the unique needs of children who have suddenly lost a parent or other loved one.