How to help your child with autism grieve

The loss of a loved one is difficult and complex. We experience a mixture of emotions, we don’t all share the same beliefs and it’s not something we may prepare ourselves for. So how do we explain death, funerals and loss to our children?

  1. Don’t avoid talking about it. Provide as clear an explanation as possible about the death of a loved one and find many opportunities to talk about it. This might help your child avoid misconceptions about the “missing person.” For example, your child might think the person they love is gone for other reasons, such as that the person doesn’t love them anymore.
  2. Use social stories to describe the viewing or funeral. Ask your child’s speech therapist or teacher to help write a social story. You may want to draft a basic story to have on hand so that you are not trying to pull one together during such an emotionally trying time. The story should include significant details, such as what the casket will look like, what the body will look like and that people will be crying.
  3. Teach before loss occurs. An acquaintance’s death might be a good chance to talk about death before a child must encounter the loss of someone very close to him. Let your child see your natural emotional responses. If they are old enough and able to handle it, consider having the child attend the wake or funeral.
  4. Look for everyday examples. Explain that death is part of the natural cycle of life. You can use examples as simple as finding a dead fly on your window sill, or the death of a famous person that you read about in the newspaper.
  5. Death as a concrete term. Death is a complicated concept to grasp, especially for people who have difficulty understanding abstract ideas. Try to make the concept of death as concrete as possible: death means the person can no longer breathe, walk around, eat, etc.
  6. Avoid euphemisms. Using terms such as “going to sleep” or “passing away” can be confusing for someone who interprets most language literally. If your belief system includes Heaven, help your child understand that Heaven is not a place that you can simply drive to (like downtown Chicago). Otherwise, your child might become frustrated that his loved one is simply in a different place, but not communicating or visiting.
  7. Avoid protecting your child “too much.” As parents, we naturally want to shield our children from things we know make them feel sad or that we believe are emotionally too difficult. If possible, include them in the funeral process.
  8. Try to keep other aspects of life as consistent as possible. Children with autism spectrum disorders can have significant difficulty when their anticipated schedules change. As soon as possible, try to have your child resume normal activities. This can help decrease general anxiety, which can compound feelings of loss.

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