Award-winning author, L.R.Knost

Death of a Butterfly: Helping Children Cope with Loss

[Reprinted from Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages by L.R.Knost. Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood and The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline also now available on Amazon and through other major retailers.]

sad little boyMy little Funny Face accidentally killed a butterfly today. Her sweet little heart is broken, poor thing. We’re walking through the stages of mourning together as I use these small (to us adults) losses to equip her with healthy tools for handling the difficult things life will surely bring through the years, as it does to all of us. Whether it’s the death of a butterfly, the loss of a favorite stuffed animal, or another loss that matters to them deeply, guiding children through their uncomfortable and often overwhelming emotions is something parents are often unprepared to handle. Here are the steps we take together when life gets hard and loss becomes a reality to my children:

1.) Feeling~The first step is simply allowing my children to feel their emotions. If they’re crying, I listen to their cues to know when to offer hugs or if they need some time alone or just someone to sit quietly next to them. If they’re angry, I watch closely to see if they need some directions for a safe outlet such as punching a pillow or going outside to kick a ball or if they are able to just stomp around and get it out that way. If they are unnaturally quiet, I let them know I’m there if they need me and then I leave them alone to sort through their emotions in their own time.

2.) Expressing~The second step is guiding my children to express their feelings in some tangible form. This step begins either when they initiate a conversation about the loss or when I see that their emotions are getting the best of them, indicating that they need some assistance in moving forward. This step may take the form of simply talking through what they are feeling, but typically it includes drawing a picture, making up a song or dictating a poem for me to write down for them, making a memory box, or some combination of each of them.

3.) Refocusing~The third and last step is giving my children ideas about how to move on. It’s often hard for them to figure out how to redirect their thoughts from constantly swirling around their loss. It takes a measure of mental maturity to be able to focus elsewhere when emotions are running high. This is not to say that they should never think about their loss again. I am always open to listening to their feelings and sharing their memories with them. This last step is just gently helping them to consciously shift their attention from what they have lost to what they still have, moving their thoughts from loss to life. This step often takes the form of encouraging them to head outside and play in the mud or climb a tree, or it might be offering to read them a favorite book or play a board game with them or maybe inviting a friend over to play.

While these three steps are in no way exhaustive, the idea behind this process is to simplify the stages of grief in a way that is accessible to parents and understandable to children. And then, when life hits hard and big losses occur such as the loss of a loved one, divorcing parents, etc. having walked through these small losses with our children sets the stage for helping them to work through the harder things while preserving a healthy parent/child connection.

When big life losses do occur,  staying in tune with our children and letting them ask questions freely while we work to temper our answers in age appropriate terms is vital. Watching for changes in their behavior helps to give us clues as to what they’re feeling. If they start having trouble sleeping or resisting going to school or having meltdowns, etc. it might be helpful to seek out professional counseling for a brief time. We also need to keep in mind that small children have active imaginations and the line between fantasy and reality is very blurry for them. Death may not impact them much at all if the reality of it doesn’t sink in, or, on the flip side it could have a significant impact and they could begin to imagine all sorts of awful things happening to them or their family or friends. It’s important to let our children lead the way as to how we need to help them cope. Our local library or online at Goodreads or Amazon’s Listopia can also be good resources for age appropriate books on death and grief to share with our children. We do need to be sure to read through them ourselves first to make sure we’re comfortable with how things are presented, though.

Here is a brief, generic ‘script’ that can be used as a starting point for sharing difficult news about a loss with our children:

 “I have something to tell you, and it’s a very hard thing. I want you to know that you are safe, and I’m safe, and I’m right here to help you, okay?”

(Give them time to respond.)

“Your (grandpa, aunt, friend, etc.), *name,* died. Do you know what ‘died’ means?”

(Give them time to respond.)

“It means they’re gone to (fill in your belief), and they won’t be coming back.”

(Give them time to respond.)

“It’s okay to be sad or even angry or scared. Those are normal emotions when people die. We are all very sad because we’re going to miss *name.*”

(Give them time to respond.)

“You’ll probably need some time to think about what happened, and you’ll probably have questions. That’s okay. And it’s okay to talk about *name,* too. We all are going to miss *name* and talking about them can help us to remember happy times with them.”

(Give them time to respond.)

“Would you like to make a goodbye card or a memory box? That might help you to feel better.”

Obviously this is a generic script that will need to be adapted based on a child’s responses, but it provides a starting point to open the conversation and begin to walk them through the grieving and healing process. Time does heal, but often it isn’t simply the passage of time that heals, but rather the support and comfort from those with whom we spend that time.

Related posts:

Children in the three to six-year-old age range are beginning to realize that their parents aren’t the all-powerful beings that they once believed them to be. This realization can be very uncomfortable for them, causing them a great deal of unease as they are concurrently beginning to realize that there is a whole, big, wide world beyond their safe, little home, a that the world is full of potential dangers, hazards unknown, and just a lot of really big, scary things. So what is a parent to do with their newly timid little house-mouse? The Age of Fear~Young Children and Anxiety


Award-winnning author, L.R.Knost, is the founder and director of the children's rights advocacy and family consulting group, Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, and Editor-in-Chief of Holistic Parenting Magazine. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood ; Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages ; The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline ; and Jesus, the Gentle Parent: Gentle Christian Parenting the first four books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, and children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series.

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