The loss of loved ones is heart wrenching for adults and the effect it has on children can be even more traumatic. As parents, caregivers, guardians, friends there are things we can watch for with children and ways that we can help them process their grief and help them to understand the loss..
Explaining death to children
When talking to a child about the loss of a loved one, it is important to be as honest as possible. Encourage them to ask questions and be prepared to answer their questions as honestly as you can, keeping it as simple and easy to explain as possible. Every child is different and their ability to fully comprehend the loss will vary from child to child and will vary depending on their age. Here are some guidelines for different ages:
Children at this age are very literal. If you say the sky is blue, the sky is blue - not varying shades of blue with white puffy clouds - the sky is BLUE. So explanations can be very simple, basic and direct. Dying can be explained as maybe a person’s body stopped working, much like when the batteries stop working in a toy. And explain that unlike toys, with people you cannot replace the batteries.
Younger children may still ask when their loved one will come back or start working again and patiently answer their questions. The concept of death being permanent is difficult for younger children to grasp. Refrain from using words or phrases such as ‘lost’ or ‘went to sleep’. This can cause children to become scared of getting lost or going to sleep at night. Try to be as honest as possible but use words and phrases that a young child can understand - don’t overcomplicate.
Additionally, avoid from reading too much into a younger child’s questions. If a 6 year old asks, “Where did grandma go?” they aren’t looking for a discussion about the afterlife or particular beliefs. Often times telling them that they were buried in a cemetery is answer enough. Long explanations about concepts or belief systems they are not mature enough to comprehend can confuse them even more. Simple and to the point is best.
At this age, young adults realize that death is permanent and that everyone dies. It’s at this age, especially in situations where teens experience the loss of friends or other kids their age, that they start to have an inkling of their own mortality. When they ask “Why?” or “Where did they go?” they are starting to think more about life, the meaning of life, how finite life is.
Encourage your teen to talk it out, ask as many questions as they’d like and do your best to honestly answer their questions. And don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” Sometimes all a teen is looking for is some understanding and some relief in not being the only one that ‘doesn’t know’.
And don’t be afraid to look for outside help with children in their teenage years when it comes to talking about and understanding death. As parents/caregivers/guardians we don’t always have all the answers or have the ability to explain or talk through with our teens in a way that they understand. Trained counselors, guidance counselors, books, youth groups, religious leaders - all can serve as valuable resources for a teen that is dealing with grief and has questions.
So how can I help my child?
Time is the best gift you can give your child. Whether it’s a family member, friend or pet, children experience the loss and process the loss differently than adults do. Children can have questions for days after the death or even for months. Giving them the time they need to express their emotions is key to helping them move forward.
Spend time remembering
Finding ways to commemorate special occasions is a good way to help children of every age heal. Decorate the grave site, write a letter and send it into the sky on a balloon, name a star after the deceased - children like to be involved. Finding special ways to celebrate a birthday or pay homage to those they’ve lost from their life can bring a lot of comfort to their hearts.
Grief counselors or specially trained therapists can help children identify and deal with their emotions and their questions. They can work with the child and the parents on expressing their grief, ways in which Mom and Dad can help and formulate a plan to help the family move forward together.
Additional ways to help a grieving child - Ash Pendants
Ash pendants are another way in which parents can help their child cope with their grief. Going to the gravesite is not always convenient, schedules get busy and emotions creep up unexpectedly. The keepsakes give children a tangible reminder of their loved one that they can touch or hold on to. Children connect with things that they can see and feel and ash pendants provide that for them. As a bonus, the keepsakes are personal to the deceased and add to the emotional value of the jewelry.
Age appropriate keepsakes
One of the first things to consider when choosing an ash pendant for a child is to consider the child’s age. For younger children under the age of ten, ash pendant keychains can attach to a backpack or house keyring. For middle school or high school aged children, consider keepsakes that are in line with their interests or has a theme that they can connect with. For instance, sports themed pendants like footballs and basketballs are ideal for young men that play those sports, ballerina slippers or flower themed keepsakes for young women that have a softer, girly side. Tune in to the child and what they can relate to in order to get the most meaning out of the pendant.
Choosing the interior remembrance
It is also important to consider what the child will be using as a remembrance. Typically, ash pendants are used to hold a small amount of cremated ashes in memory of the deceased. However, this concept to a child can prove to be scary or make them uncomfortable. Pendants without an internal urn may be a better choice for children that are not ready to have a more personal and intimate remembrance of their loved one.
Tips for choosing an ash pendant for your child
It's about Them
Keep their tastes and personalities in mind, not your own. As adults, often times what appeals to children is not necessarily in line with what appeals to us. Remember that the keepsake is not about YOU - it’s about providing a tangible way for them to feel the connection to the person that they’ve lost. Favorite colors, initials, animals, hobbies - jot down notes about what your child gravitates to and start your search from there. If your child is picking the keepsake out, then let them pick it out. Keep your personal opinion about what they’ve chosen to yourself - especially if it’s something that does not appeal to you.
Decide to fill or not
Decide ahead of time whether or not you want to fill the keepsake before you give it to them. For older children, adding the remembrance ahead of time may be your best option. This gives them a ready-to-wear memory of their loved one that they can garner immediate comfort from. Younger children may not feel comfortable ‘wearing’ a personal part of their loved one or they may want to be involved in adding the tribute - again, seeing is believing for younger children.
Photo Engraved Option
When in doubt, choose photo engraved. Photo engraved keepsakes are your best option when you really aren’t sure what to get. You can choose any picture of the deceased that your child loves and have it engraved onto the surface of the pendant. This is a great option for children of any age as there is no interior remembrance but because it’s a photo of the deceased, it is still highly personal. The pendants are versatile in that they can be worn on a necklace, hung from a rearview mirror or even attached to a backpack or purse strap.
Gifting your child the keepsake
Choosing the right time to give your child the keepsake takes some thought. If your child is struggling and having difficulty immediately after the death, maybe broach the subject of the keepsake. Show them pictures, talk to them about the personal nature of the jewelry, ask if it’s something they might be interested in. Get them involved in the process. Some children may want to go forward immediately, others may be reluctant to pursue the idea. Let your child take the lead a little bit and get a gauge for how they feel about having a reminder of their loved one.
Some families may choose to wait for a special occasion or specific anniversary to gift the keepsake to their child. The anniversary of the death, a first Mother’s Day or Father’s Day without their loved one, a birthday - all ideal times when giving the child a memory of their loved one is special. Maybe it’s a wedding day, a graduation, the birth of a child. If waiting to give your child the keepsake, choose a day or a moment that has personal meaning. This again adds to the emotional value of the keepsake and provides them a way to feel a connection to those that they’ve lost
Children grieve in a much different manner than adults and understanding how they approach death and comprehend loss is an important part of helping them move through the grieving process. Time, patience and even giving them a tangible reminder of the deceased such as an ash pendant can aid in not only helping your child process the grief but give them tools to deal with grief as they move into adulthood.