You can't shield your kids from the tragedies that life may bring them, even though you want to. Unfortunately, some kids experience death in their lives well before they should. Walking through a death experience matures kids faster than they deserve. As a parent, you may want to shelter your child from this pain, and feel there is no way to ease the emotional and life-changing experience of the loss of a friend or loved one. However, even though you can't protect your kids from the experience of a death or other loss, you can teach them how to cope in a healthy manner that minimizes the likelihood of long-term trauma.
Signs of Grief
Understand that kids grieve very differently from adults. While an adult may seem to linger in grief or cry for long periods of time, kids seem to move on much faster. However, experts say that though kids may appear to move on, that is not the case at all. Expect emotions to fluctuate and don't judge your kids by how they behave. After death, life does go on and your kids will have days when they cry one minute and then fight, play or want to go swimming the next. All of these behaviors can be part of how your child is dealing with his grief.
Play is a coping mechanism for kids. Younger kids may show regression behaviors (wetting the bed, talking like a baby). Older kids may slip into a depression, develop unfounded fears or lash out in anger. It's all normal. Be watchful for signs of grief and don't punish behaviors that are likely tied to loss. Instead, help your kids associate their behavior with their grief so they can deal with the root problem.
Coping Skills for Childhood Grief
Kids often can't verbalize their very deepest and most complicated feelings, grief being one of them. You, as the parent, will need to help your kids find outlets for their grief and ways to express their feelings non-verbally. Some grief counselors recommend drawing pictures, looking at old photos, sharing stories, reading kid-appropriate books about death and making "memory projects" like a scrap book or collage of items. These will help them remember happy times with their lost loved one.
While younger kids don't truly grasp the permanence of death, older kids will. They may have questions about where their loved one went, and want details of what really happened when they died. Be age appropriate with your answers, but allow any question to be asked. It's also a good time to share with your kids your personal ideas of what happens to people when they die, such as going to heaven but living on in the hearts and memories of those left behind. If you decide to allow your kids to attend the funeral, discuss beforehand what they will experience and see there. You will need to gauge whether a funeral is going to help or hinder your child. While some kids may need the closure of a funeral, others will cope better by staying away.
Moving on after a Loss
Grief is a process and will probably be present in your child's heart, in some form, for the rest of his life. Always allow open discussion about the loss of the friend or family member. Keep memory objects in sight and bring up stories of the happy times you spent together. Know that fears may emerge, especially if the death is sudden (such as a car accident or a heart attack), traumatic or tragic (such as a terrorist attack or a murder). Helping your child move forward in life will mean helping him face the fears and other feelings that come with death and loss. If you notice your child seems overwhelmed by it all, find a grief counselor to help with ongoing support.