Special needs children have a unique view of the world. Many don’t see it for the bad that hides just beneath the surface; instead, these untainted souls choose to soak up God’s glory in each moment. However, when someone dies, this enthusiasm for life can turn to confusion as children struggle to understand what it means that their loved one is no longer a part of their physical world.
Here are a few ways you can help your most vulnerable family members cope with loss, understand death, and find greater meaning in the circle of life.
Talk to them using real language.
It is of the utmost importance that you refrain from using soft phrases to describe death, especially when the child is trying to understand exactly what that means. Explain the situation using words that outline the reality of the situation. Tell them their loved one is dead, not simply gone or sleeping. One of the most heartbreaking sights in the world is watching a child try to wake a “sleeping” grandparent, parent, sibling, or friend.
Allow them to say goodbye.
Death is permanent and is one occasion that warrants an actual “goodbye” as opposed to a “see ya later.” Have your child say their final farewells in whatever way is most appropriate to their needs. If they are able, allow them to attend the funeral or memorial service. Alternately, you might have them write or dictate a few words to help them understand the transition isn’t temporary.
Support instead of shield.
Life is full of tough choices and the decision to let your child feel pain is one of them. However, now isn’t the time to push the world away and pretend nothing is different. Grief Speaks reports that special needs children, like everyone as else, need to express their feelings
Help them reinforce their relationship with God and the church.
God is the source of all comfort. Bring your child to an extra service after the death and speak with your pastor about ways to help your child remain faithful in trying times. If you don’t have a home church, now is the perfect time to reach out to people who care and establish relationships with Him and with the community.
Discuss their own future as well as your mortality.
When a child experiences a loss for the first time, it often throws a hard reality in their face: life is temporary. This can bring up fears of their caregiver (you) dying and leave them wondering what happens to them after. You can abate some of this anxiety by discussing their future care plan and accommodations should you no longer be around to provide for their wellbeing. This guide can help get you started if you haven’t already begun the process of securing lifelong care for your alternately-able child. Let your children know that, yes, one day you may not be around but you have taken every precaution to ensure your love is felt long after he or she is an adult.
Know when to seek professional help. Sometimes grief doesn’t come and go. It can linger and create a sense of instability for a child who thrives and relies on routine and predictability. Look for signs of depression in the weeks and months after a death. Talk of suicide, self-harm, and a fixation on death can trigger a long-term pattern of unhealthy thoughts and behaviors. GoodTherapy.org explains that bereavement counseling can help the child learn to cope with stress factors and maintain healthy connections to those lost and those who remain.
While you cannot prevent the inevitable, you can help your child learn to accept death as part of life. You child will feel helpless and will need your support to remain in control of their own thoughts and feelings. It isn’t easy, but, with time and a good dose of faith, you and your child can heal.