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Anticipatory Grief: How to Help Children Cope with the Anticipated Death of a Loved One

Updated: Jul 17, 2023


How to Help Children Cope with the Anticipated Death of a Loved One

Anticipatory grief can be agonizingly painful for a family. Watching your loved one slowly fade is heart-wrenching. Whether it is a grandparent with a terminal illness or even an aging family pet, children feel the weight of the grief as the rest of the family is going through it. There are many things you can do to make this process easier for children and to allow them to process grief as the situation unfolds.


Be Honest

It is not unusual for parents to minimize the weight of the situation or to offer false hope that their loved one is going to survive. The motivation is usually pure, to relieve the child from distress at that time. Unfortunately, children usually resent being lied to and will struggle with trust after their loved one passes.


Kids are more perceptive than many adults give them credit for. They are often able to pick up on nonverbal cues from their family to be able to recognize what is happening. They want answers. As you give information, it is best to make it short, honest responses.


Here are some ideas:

“Uncle Bob is in bad shape. It is sad to see him struggle.”

“Grandma has lived a long life and is nearing the end of it.”

“Buck is a really old dog. Dogs usually only live ten years or so (depending on the breed). We are going to miss him when he is gone.”


It is usually not a positive experience for children to hear unnecessary details of how the illness is slowly taking over the body of their loved one. Simple, straightforward answers are what they are looking for. You do not want to share so much information that it will trigger fear of sickness in them.

 

Healthy communication in relationships
 

Share How You Feel

Parents set the example of how children are to act. If the parents are tightlipped about their emotions, the kids will believe they should do the same. If the parents are open and share how they feel, kids will feel like they are given permission to do the same. This should happen in a reasonable way. The parent should not look to the child to be their comforter or main support figure. The goal is to create an atmosphere where sharing is comfortable.


Remember, kids are perceptive. If you are dying inside but tell the kids that you are OK, they will know that you are lying. They see through the façade. Another benefit of being honest about how you feel is that it normalizes it for your children. Everyone has similar emotional responses to grief. If they think that you are doing great but they are hurting deeply, it will make them feel like there is something wrong with them.


Make a Plan for the End

How do you intend to tell your child when your loved one has passed? There really isn’t a right or wrong way to do it. Some people want their children to say goodbye in person, while others prefer to wait until their passing to share information. How you choose to handle this situation may have a lot to do with the condition of the loved one and the age and maturity of the child. It is usually best for the child to not be present at the time of the death, as it can be traumatic. It may also be scary for a child to see their loved on in a hospital setting with tubes and machines hooked up to them. It’s important to consider how they will respond. Parents usually know best what their children need and how well they can process it.


It usually takes a person about three days to process a bombshell. If the death was unexpected, it would be good to tell the child when they have time to think through it and avoid saying it right before they have to perform in some way, like on the way to school.

 

Narrative therapy for grief: how to process grief through writing or speaking the stories.
 

Offer Hope

What silver lining is there in the loss of a loved one? This is where you can share your beliefs with your child to offer hope and encouragement. It is important to communicate to your children that grief can feel like you are going to be in pain forever, but it is only temporary. It may sneak back up in unexpected waves, but over time it runs its course.


Give Your Children Healing Tools

There are many activities to help children process loss. You do not have to wait until your loved one’s passing to start processing the pain. Children can do this through art, writing letters, and through play.

  • Memory Box – Compile a box with favorite memories of your loved one. It may contain some pictures and small trinkets that remind the child of their loved one. Have your child either draw pictures of favorite memories, write about them, or both. This will allow your child to remember favorite times together after their loved one is gone. It may be healing to their sick loved one to get the experience of some of the memories together if they are still healthy enough to communicate. It would be pretty cool for the child and loved one to get to work on some of it together.

  • Create a Gift – If a child recognizes their time with their loved one is short, they will often want to give something to be remembered. It can be powerful for the child to create something special to give to their loved one to communicate how special their relationship is. It could be a simple card or something more elaborate like a scrapbook. After their loved one is gone, the gift can bring comfort in the dark hours of grief.

  • Play Games – There are some fantastic counseling games specifically made to address grief, but you could also play your favorite games as well. Being intentional about having positive experiences as a family even in the midst of grief can provide comic relief. It will offer a sense of normalcy that is so difficult to find during troubled times.

  • Toy Time – Kids will often use toys to process their emotions. They might set up a doll house to look like Grandma’s house and act out a special memory. They may act like they are a nurse trying to fix Grandma. Sometimes they might act like a baby while Grandma is holding them. While it might sound kind of weird to an adult, these are all healing things to a child.

  • Allow Your Kid to be A Kid – Go to the park, try to maintain some of your normal activities, and don’t put an expectation on them to feel a certain way. They may be running around and having fun while everyone else is sulking. It is OK. Kids process things differently than adults. It comes in little bits and pieces and sometimes at unusual times. It often takes kids a while to figure it out. They might think they have a sense of what death means but then will say that Uncle Bob died but will be back next week. The best thing you can do is roll with it and allow them time to process it over time.

Grief is hard. However, there are many things you can do as a parent to help your child process their emotions. Difficult times offer an opportunity for growth. Families can often grow stronger and more connected through grief.

 

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