Nothing can prepare you for the death of a loved one. Though we knew that my father-in-law was dying, it didn’t feel real until my husband picked up the phone and heard the news of his death. We were instantly distressed, and it was impossible to hide the news from our children. However, we also didn’t know what to say to our children, nor how to offer them the reassurance that they needed.

Dealing with death is not simple. Grief is comprised of a number of feelings, including sadness, anxiety, guilt and irritability. Your life is changed forever, as you suddenly have to learn how to live without that person.

Not only are you forced to deal with the emotional issues, but there are so many other details to contend with. We had to make travel arrangements, and help plan the funeral and interment. My husband had to publicly express his feelings through the eulogy and obituary. There were endless amounts of paperwork, and a lifetime of possessions to sort through.

Our two young children were lost in the turmoil.

I wasn’t sure how to talk with them about what was going on. I looked for advice everywhere. I wanted a simple plan or a checklist to tell me how to help my children cope. I couldn’t think for myself because I had too many other things to do, and I was struggling with my own feelings.

In the end I realized that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for coping with death because grief is different for everyone.

I also learned that death is a natural part of life, and it is fine for children to be exposed to it. Depending on your cultural traditions, it is also fine for children to attend a funeral. They will not be spared from the effects of grief if they are somehow sheltered from the direct experience of the funeral.

Toddlers and babies
Though toddlers and babies won’t actually understand what is going on, they will be affected by the moods of everyone around them. My toddler started having trouble sleeping, she restarted her bedtime colic, and was unusually cranky and clingy during the day. She needed reassurance from her parents, yet we were both too anxious ourselves to provide it.

What worked for me was to be extra gentle with her. Though I couldn’t give her the calm demeanour that she needed, I did provide the comfort of my presence. We moved her crib into our room, and I started using the carrier around home. We also had playdates with her favourite people to give her a chance to have fun with happier people.

Young children
My son was old enough to understand death, and the loss of his grandfather. Yet he wasn’t able to verbally express any of his feelings or concerns. His sleep and behaviour both deteriorated. He became scared of the dark, was easily upset over small disappointments, and had a few uncontrollable tantrums.

Again, we tried to be extra gentle and understanding. Within reason, we let him act and feel whatever he wanted, and tried not to get frustrated by his unusually demanding behaviour.

We got several books out of the library about death. My favourite was The Grandad Tree by Trish Cooke, which talks about death as a natural part of a life cycle and explains that loved ones are never really gone if we remember them.

We also had several discussions about death. We felt that it was important to reassure him that none of his other grandparents were going to die soon and address any other fears he may have around death. We made a point to talk about how we were feeling, and why our feelings may be causing us to act differently. Though he didn’t always seem to participate, I know it was important for him to be acknowledged in this way.

Emillie Parrish loves having adventures with her two busy children. She lives in Victoria and is the author of the food based blog web link