Autism and eight tips for discussing a death in the family

Jenny Wise


Relating the fact that a loved one has passed is difficult for any parent but can be especially burdensome for parents of special needs children. The following tips will help you prepare yourself for what will likely be one of the most heart-wrenching conversations of your life:

1. Be preemptive
When death is expected, as is the case when a loved one has a terminal illness, tell the child ahead of time that the condition is incurable. Make them aware that death is imminent so they are not caught completely off guard when it finally happens. Unfortunately, death doesn’t always come with a warning. People are taken suddenly through accidents, murders, and undiagnosed illnesses. In such situations, it’s best to relay the facts as soon as you have them. Jennifer Lovy of the Friendship Circle, a special-needs parenting resource Michigan, points out that children are intuitive and can easily sense our emotions. Concealing the truth can make the child internalize fears and result in a worse emotional outcome.

2. Use emotion words
When you sit down with your special-needs child to break the news, begin your conversation by explaining that you have something “sad” to tell them. This will help him or her brace for impact.

3. Speak in the literal terms
Avoid sugarcoating death with phrases such as, “grandma has gone to sleep” or “Aunt Sue is finally at rest.” Many special-needs children are very literal and cannot differentiate expressions from actual events. Your child may fear going to sleep at night, mistakenly believing they won’t wake up. Likewise, if your friend or family member died from an illness, make it very clear that only the most extreme sickness can cause death. The last thing you want is for your child to believe that he or she will die the next time they have a stuffy nose.

4. Talk about their loved one lost
When someone dies, don’t avoid talking about them. This will not diminish the child’s grief or shield them from pain. Offer plenty of opportunities to celebrate their love and listen as they recount special memories together.

5. Participate in routines to help your child cope
Many special-needs children thrive on routine and may have an easier time accepting the loss if you establish a ritual to help them cope. For example, you might have the child put together a memory box complete with photographs and written stories about the deceased. Low-functioning or non-verbal children may benefit from a visual memorial that he or she can visit when they’re feeling sad but don’t know how to express their emotions.

6. Let your child to say goodbye
Whether they attend the funeral, write a letter, or release balloons in honor of their loved one, allow your child closure by saying goodbye in their own way. VITAS Healthcare offers more information on children and funeral services here

7. Be patient and listen
One of the most important thing you can do for your family, and especially a special-needs child, is to be present, patient, and attentive while he or she works through their grief. Even if they cannot communicate with words, a hug, kiss, and your presence by their side will provide comfort.

8. Help your child regain their sense of control
When the dearly departed was a close family member – parent, sibling, grandparents – the child may begin to worry that you, his caretaker, will soon leave him, too. While you may feel helpless to alleviate their immediate pain, you can help them take control of their fears by discussing your long-term care plan in case of your own untimely departure.

The death of a friend or family member is an extremely painful time for both parent and child. But, children, even those with special needs, are resilient and will learn to go on after a loss. Recovery is not easy but, by providing the appropriate resources and support immediately following the death, you will ease the transition and hopefully prevent long-term, negative feelings associated with the circle of life.


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