Last year, just before school let out for the summer, a mother and her daughter tragically died in the town where I live. The ripples of grief spread quickly through our community. The entire town struggled to make sense of the loss, and many of us searched for the right words to share with our own kids. I consider myself somewhat fluent in the language of grief, as the CEO of Experience, a network of free grief camps for youth, so I was surprised when the emotion of these deaths left me a bit verbally paralyzed. I offer the following suggestions and language to those who find themselves in need of some guidance.
1. Be the one to break the news.
It’s natural to want to protect your child from the harsh realities of the world by shielding them from upsetting news, but that rarely works. Share the news with your child directly, honestly, and in age-appropriate terms and detail. Hearing the news from you first gives them an opportunity to process and ask questions before it comes up amongst their peers or on social media.
2. Use direct language.
We all struggle with the right words when there’s a tragedy involving children. It’s okay if you stumble over the words, but try to use clear and direct language to avoid confusion. Kids may not know what it means to “pass” or to “lose” someone. You may say something like: “I have some sad news to share with you…a boy from your school died yesterday in an accident. He was hurt very badly and the doctors couldn’t fix him.”
3. Follow their cues.
Once you share the news, let them guide the conversation. They may respond by asking you, “What’s for dinner?” Or they may have a lot of questions about the way the death occurred. It’s okay to answer those questions honestly and to admit when you don’t know the answer. You might be surprised by how upset they are about someone they didn’t even know, or you might be surprised by their lack of emotion for someone that was a good friend. Every child grieves differently and processes loss in their own time.
4. Show you care.
Sometimes it helps to channel grief into something that helps others. Encourage your child to express empathy towards the family or honor the person who died in a way that feels authentic and meaningful to them. They may want to make a card, plant a tree, attend the memorial service, or otherwise make or do something to show that they care. These acts of kindness can ease their sense of helplessness.
5. Check back in.
Even if your child seems to have moved on, check back in periodically. They may be processing the permanence of death as time goes on and unsure of how to bring it up. Asking how they’re feeling about the death lets them know they can come to you with hard things. Modeling openness and vulnerability will set them up for healthy adaptation to losses that they encounter throughout their lives.
Want to know what to say to your teen when a peer dies? Read on.
Sara Deren is the Chief Executive Officer of Experience Camps. Under her leadership, Experience Camps has conducted original research on the state of grief and launched 10 camp program sites from coast to coast with a waitlist for grieving children that is growing 300% year over year. In 2020, she received an award for “Best Entrepreneurial, Scaling” from Connecticut Entrepreneur Awards, and was named a “Patriots Difference Maker” by The Krafts Family and Patriots Foundation. Sara was named by Causeartist one of 32 nonprofit leaders who will impact the world in 2022.