Parenting: Dealing with death

Parenting: Dealing with death

With more than 250,000 Covid-related deaths in the United States reported (as of November 18, 2020), it’s likely your family is dealing with the issue of death. How can we support our children as we digest this overwhelming death toll? How do we support children dealing with the death of a family member? How do we support children with special needs, who may venture into areas of obsession or anxiety over the nation’s death toll?

Dr. Meg Murray, educational psychologist, has some suggestions for families digesting a loss. Specializing in special needs’ children means Dr. Meg knows the minefield many families tackle when dealing with difficult subjects like death. Children on the autism spectrum, with behavioral challenges, sensitivity issues, personality disorders, or even ADHD can feel gutted when grief enters their world.

Because death is a part of life for all of us, parents need to know how to meet this challenging topic head-on, pandemic or no.

Normal reactions to death

First off, let’s look at what are normal signs your child is confronting the idea of mortality. Even if you haven’t had a death in the family, don’t negate the impact of the nation’s death toll on your child’s psyche. Children absorb information around them. It’s impossible to miss the fact, even for young children, that people are becoming sick and even dying from illness right now.

According to the article, Helping your children cope with death,” published by Stanford University: Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital, children deal with grief in a variety of ways. How children under the age of five cope looks different from an adult’s version of grief. Preschoolers may think of death as temporary. They are unable to process grief like an adult. Between the ages of five and nine, children begin to show grief in a more recognizable way, including: Denial, irritability, sleep issues, loss of appetite, withdrawal, and loss of concentration.

Parents may also see children revert to younger behaviors, create stories around death, and ask relentless questions about the deceased.

Let them feel, even the hard stuff

It’s every parent’s nightmare. Yes, watching your child feel pain is the worst. However, allowing the natural grief process is to your child’s advantage. Regardless of whether they are feeling sad, scared, or angry, be the nurturing safety net where they can feel it all without judgment.

Remember, discussing death often brings up fear of the future. If your child seems unusually clingy, allow it. They may need some extra parent-time to push through the scary feelings.

Leave the vagueness at the door

Using an expression like “passed away” can create confusion in kids who tend to see life in terms in black and white. While it’s ever a good idea to overload children with the grisly details, using words like “death” and “died” give them finality, as opposed to confusion.

Try to answer only the questions they ask. You don’t need to give them more information. Focus on the specific questions they have.

Don’t be suprised if they ask a hard question, then head back outside to play. Often, children need to digest heavy stuff in pieces.

Don’t shy away from death discussions

You don’t have to have all the answers. But, sharing your ideas about death can be comforting to children. If you believe in heaven or some beautiful transition from this world, share it with your kids.

And, ask your children what they think. No body is wrong. Give them the opportunity to explore the idea of death, but only as much as they feel ready.

If the deceased is a close friend or family member, make sure your child understands they aren’t to blame. Children tend to blame themselves. In addition, stress how much the deceased person loved them.

When to seek help

At some point, if your child doesn’t seem to be moving past the different stages of grief, it’s time to seek help. When the behaviors like depression interfere in a child’s ability to function at school or home, find a grief counselor or mental health professional.

  • Are you noticing a sharp change in behavior? Either a suddenly quiet child is becoming a behavior problem at school. Or, an outgoing child becomes withdrawn.
  • Grades are suffering.
  • Acting out at school.

If a child discusses suicide or you sense something is off, make sure to trust your instincts and get help. At worst, you and your child will receive extra support during a difficult time for everyone.

For more information about coping with death as a parent, read “Helping grieving children and teenagers” published at

If your special needs’ child is struggling in school and seems need extra support during this unusual time of Covid, call Dr. Meg at:

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