One of the most difficult responsibilities of my career as a play therapist has been the heart wrenching task of telling a young child their parent has died. However, you might be surprised at my disclosing that is often the easy part! The greatest challenge for me has been working with the adult caregivers to ensure the child’s emotional growth is supported before, and after the loss. That is for two reasons: first, adults are often uncomfortable about death in relation to children. Second, there is often a lack of understanding around what, when, and how much information the child should be given.
As I reflect on those essential issues, I’m compelled to share my first experience with loss…
I was five years old. I had just gotten home from school and rushed to my bedroom to say hello to my beloved hamster, “Harry.” As I entered the room, I sensed something was wrong. It was quiet. Harry’s metal wheel, the one he loved to run on, was silent. The familiar rhythmic squeaking absent.
I nervously approached his cage. I peeked inside, holding my breath. I found Harry, laying silently, in his pile of cedar shavings.
My mom called from the kitchen, offering a chocolate milk. When I didn’t respond, she came looking for me. As she entered the room, what she found surprised her: Harry was on my desk, eyes closed, on his back, motionless. With one fingertip over the other, I was “performing” CPR on the small creature, trying desperately to revive him.
I put Harry in a shoe box and covered him in shavings. I said a prayer. As far as I knew, my dad buried Harry in the backyard when he got home from work (wink, wink).
As I reflect on the first loss of something I loved, several things occur to me: even at that young age, I understood the permanency of death. It’s irreversibility. I also had an innate spirituality. It’s a beautiful gift most children possess, but is often squandered.
My advice to families with children who are faced with the death of a loved one:
- Acknowledge any personal feelings of discomfort about death, and our very understandable instinct to protect our children from pain and sadness. Children can be far more resilient than we realize.
- Recognize the child’s developmental understanding of death, and explain it in a way they will understand. A child will need to revisit the loss as they progress through the developmental continuum, and their cognitive understanding of death changes.
- Model appropriate and healthy expression of feelings. Children learn emotional coping skills from those who care for them.
- Despite the chaos that often ensues following the loss of a loved one, structure and consistency are essential to a young child’s adjustment. Every effort should be made to maintain their daily routine.
- Embrace the child’s sense of spirituality while encouraging its expression. There can be beauty in bearing witness to a young child’s unique honoring of their deceased loved one.
- If possible, get your child a pet- they help build empathy, and can be used to teach about the cycle of life, including loss.