Unfortunately, in the broken world we live in, death is a part of life. The loss of a loved one, whether it’s a grandparent, a pet, or someone else, can be devastating to a child. We don’t know how to naturally grieve. How children react and process the really big, new feelings that come with death can set the tone for their emotional health for many years to come. It’s tempting to think that avoiding this sadness is the best thing for your child. You might want to redirect them to happy things so they can forget about it and “move on”. Don’t make that mistake.
Ask a lot of gentle questions. Don’t press too hard, but don’t avoid the topic altogether. Your child likely won’t want to talk about what they’re feeling. Because it’s painful. It doesn’t have to happen immediately, but processing the loss of a loved one is essential for their emotional health. Make sure you never shut them down with well-intended sentiments like “you’re too young to understand”. When the time is right, gently and loving spend time with your child and ask them how they’re feeling. They’ll likely need help to discover their true and complicated emotions.
Conversations happen when kids want them to, not necessarily when you want them to. You might want to talk to them right after the funeral. They might have other plans. They might bring it up for the first time in the middle of your conference call for work. If it’s safe to do so, drop everything and be there for your child. If you don’t they might not view you as a safe person to open up with in the future. Treat their feelings as real, even if you don’t understand/agree with their feelings. You might think, “it’s just a goldfish that died”. But to them, it was their true friend. Don’t dismiss their feeling or unintentionally communicate that they shouldn’t be sad.
Point to the hope in Jesus. Death was not part of God’s original design. God desires to live with us forever. God knows what it’s like to lose someone He loved. He sent His Son Jesus to Earth to save us, knowing that Jesus would have to die in order for our sins to be forgiven. God promises to one day “wipe away every tear” (Rev. 21:4) and that He “causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God” (Rom. 8:28). God also says that He is “close to the brokenhearted; He rescues those whose spirits are crushed” (Ps. 34:18). One day in heaven, we will be reunited with those that put their trust in Jesus and we will live with them forever. Everything will one day be perfect when God makes all things new. He can be hopeful that our pain and sadness will not last forever.
Be honest. Provide accurate and age-appropriate information to them to help them process and build trust with you. Don’t say, “We won’t see grandpa for a while” or “He went to sleep", but instead say directly and lovingly, “Grandpa died and we won’t see him again on Earth, and that’s really sad.”. Don’t delay in talking about death - that can do more harm than good. Learning the truth from you will build trust and be easier than learning it from someone else or figuring it out later in life. Remember that it’s okay to say, “I don’t know” for any difficult questions. Explore the answers together and research Scripture for God’s truth.
Show them how to grieve. Jesus lived a perfect life and showed us what it was like to be sad. When His friend Lazarus died, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Don’t feel the need to “be strong” and not cry in front of your children. Actually, true strength is allowing your child to see you cry, to see you sad. You don’t have to have all of the answers. You don’t have to put on a “brave face”. Be open and honest with them, showing them that it’s okay to be sad and even angry when someone dies. This will help them build compassion for you and for others’ feelings. The difficult and sobering underlying truth is that we, ourselves, actually know how to grieve in a healthy way. If you don’t, don’t be discouraged. Talk to a pastor or counselor.
A great grief journal/devotional that points to the hope in Jesus: Remembering my someone special :: Jesus Gives me hope by Jane Wilke