Death is a natural part of life. It is something that none of us are immune to and all of us are guaranteed to experience. But for a child experiencing this type of permanent loss for the first time, it can be confusing and difficult to grasp. Whether it’s a beloved pet who is crossing the rainbow bridge, a grandparent, family friend, or some other loved one, you might be at a loss for words as to how to explain this normal yet difficult phenomenon to a sweet and innocent child, especially if that child has autism.
Luckily, you are not alone in this experience; experts and autistic people have some tips and pieces of advice to share with you. Read on to find out how you can help during this painful time.
7. Explain Death Before It Happens
Because death is a rather harsh reality, sometimes parents may be tempted to avoid talking about it until it directly affects their child. But this is not always the best idea, as a child will then have to process the concept of death in addition to the emotions and inherent change it will bring. It’s best to explain it before it even happens.
6. Be Literal
Along the same vein, it may feel gentler to describe death with a euphemism, such as “We lost Grandpa” or “Grandpa passed away,” but to a child, especially one with autism, this will not make any sense. Euphemisms can even inadvertently scare children (for example, “Grandpa went to sleep” may cause a child to fear sleeping). Gently explain to them what death is from a physical standpoint, supplementing your explanation with concrete examples (e.g. the heart stops, the person stops moving and breathing, etc). And do your best to answer any questions they may have about it.
Some experts and autistics also suggest leaving out the concept of an afterlife, as it may be too abstract for a child on the spectrum. If religious beliefs are important to your family, do as you see fit, but keep in mind that this could be a potential source of confusion.
5. Let Them Grieve in Their Own Way
Whether neurotypical or autistic, people grieve in all sorts of ways. Some will go through an entire box of tissues in a day, while others won’t shed so much as a tear. Some will seek company and support, and others may withdraw and need time alone. During spells of grief, autistic people may experience meltdowns, shutdowns, extreme anxiety, anger, hypersensitivity, and avoidance. Or they may not show any outward signs at all.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve a loss, so provide support as your child grieves rather than scolding or shaming them for how they react—even if they smile or laugh (this may happen due to emotional “scrambling” and should not be taken as a sign that the person is oblivious to or even happy about the death).
4. Maintain Routines
As schedules may be shaken up with funerals, visitations, and memorial services, it’s important to maintain normal routines as much as possible. This can help bring comfort and order to a very chaotic and emotionally tumultuous time.
3. Don’t Shy Away from Funerals or Visitations
Visiting a loved one on their deathbed or attending a funeral can give a child a way to say goodbye, so consider giving them this opportunity if they want it (and if they don’t, that’s okay, too; don’t force them).
If your child will attend, make sure they know what to expect. In addition to the fact that prior preparation is generally important for those with autism, there is often a great deal of emotion and tears at funerals and visitations, so your child needs to know about this ahead of time so they’re not blindsided by the ways in which others grieve. In line with point number 5, they also need to know that crying is neither forbidden nor expected of them.
2. Look at Some Books
There are lots of books out there that explain death and grief to kids. A few examples you might consider:
- Get Rid of the Hurt: A Reproducible Workbook for Kids Experiencing Loss by Madeleine Brehm and Rachel Wenzlaff
- Sad Isn’t Bad: A Good-Grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing With Loss by Michaelene Mundy
- The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown
1. Create Rituals in Memory of the One Who Died
As rituals and routines can be helpful and comforting to individuals with ASD, creating one that is meaningful to your child can help with the grieving process. For example, create a scrapbook or memory box to look at regularly, or maybe do a certain activity in memory of the one who died.
A. Stout received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing through Grand Valley State University, graduating Magna Cum Laude in 2015. In addition to being a passionate autism advocate, she is a member of various fandoms, a study abroad alumna, and an animal lover. She dreams of publishing novels and traveling all over the world someday.