The death of a friend is a very painful event for children. Here's how to help your child cope with the loss.
It's hard to wrap your mind around the idea that a child you know has died. When that child was your child's friend, it's even more devastating. And as you deal with your own feelings about the loss, you have to explain it to your kid. Help him cope by following these steps.
Share the News
Choose a quiet and unhurried time and setting. Your child will need your support, so make sure you're calm. Keep the conversation simple and age appropriate, along the lines of "Something sad happened to your friend Ben. He was really sick and he died last night." You may have to explain what "died" means for young children who don't yet understand death. "For example, you could say, 'Sometimes, people get very sick-with a special kind of sickness-that can't get better and their bodies stop working," says Marla W. Deibler, Psy.D., a psychologist and executive director of the Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia, LLC. If illness didn't cause the child's death, you might say, "Amber was in a car accident and her body stopped working." Be careful not to share explicit details of the child's death.
Kids will be very concerned with how the friend's death will affect them, so it's also important to make it clear to them what they can expect, says Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D., clinical director of Westchester Group Works, in Harrison, New York. Explain that the two of them will no longer have playdates, or the friend won't be able to attend birthday parties, or that your child won't see her friend at school anymore, Dr. Maidenberg says.
Comfort Your Child
Allow her to express her emotions freely. Hug her tightly and hold her while she cries. Let her know it's okay for her to feel sad or mad. Then share some of your own feelings: I feel really bad about what happened to Amber. I'm going to miss her and I know you will too." Encourage her to ask questions, and then answer them honestly and simply. Let her know you're there for her anytime she has questions or needs to talk to someone.
One of your child's worries, whether he voices it or not, will be that something similar will happen to him or to a loved one. "It's important to reinforce to the child that he is safe and so are his loved ones," Dr. Maidenberg says. If the friend died because of illness and your child is concerned about his own health, Dr. Maidenberg suggests you say, "Most kids your age don't die. There are a very few who, unfortunately, have illnesses or accidents, but most kids grow up and live until they're past Grandma's age." If a tragic accident caused the friends death, focus on the ways your family tries to stay safe, by following the speed limit, always wearing a seatbelt in the car, and looking both ways before crossing the street.
Prepare for the Emotions
A friend's death always causes emotional turmoil. For kids, it's even worse because they may not fully understand what's going on and this may be the first time they hear about a child dying. Your child might feel sad, angry, confused, shocked, depressed, or a number of other emotions. Some children go through of a period of denial, and younger kids may show regressive behavior, such as bedwetting, thumb-sucking or wanting to sleep in the parents' room. To help you and your young child understand his feelings, read books together like The Grief Bubble: Helping Kids Explore and Understand Grief by Kerry DeBay and Why Did You Die?: Activities to Help Children Cope with Grief and Loss by Ellen Goldring and Erika Leeuwenburgh. For preteens and teens, When a Friend Dies: A Book for Teens About Grieving & Healing by Marilyn E. Gootman Ed.D. can help them better cope with confusing and painful emotions.
Help Her Say Goodbye
When a child's friend dies, many parents struggle with the decision to allow the child to attend the funeral. The ceremony may help your child process her friend's death, but make sure you consider your child's personality. If she's very sensitive or has difficulty seeing others express extreme emotions, it may be best to keep her home. She can say goodbye or remember her friend by later placing a flower on the grave, making a scrapbook of the two of them, sharing stories about her friend, or writing a goodbye letter to her deceased friend.
How long your child grieves depends on his age and his relationship with the deceased friend. Allow your kid to go through the process at his own pace, but don't overlook signs of trouble. Some red flags: problems with daily functioning, such as sleeping and eating, social isolation, extreme changes in academic performance and/or refusal to attend school, aggression, lack of interest in activities he once enjoyed, hyperfocusing on death or talking about being with the deceased friend. If you notice these signs, Dr. Maidenberg says, your child may need help to cope with the loss.
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