Helping your child deal with death, loss, and grief

Article at a Glance

  • How your children grieve depends on their developmental stage and will change as they mature.
  • Don’t avoid conversations about death, but answer your children’s questions simply and honestly.
  • Allow your children to express their emotions and help them feel safe.

When children lose a loved one, parents play an important role in helping them come to terms with death and grief. Death can be hard to talk about, but it is a natural part of life. Children do better when their parents help them feel safe and allow them to express their feelings.

Here are some things you can do to help your child.

Prepare ahead of time

It is easier to talk about death when it isn’t personal. When your children are little, talk to them about the death of things like plants, bugs, or animals. Don’t get overly complicated, but do candidly answer their questions. For older children, the death of a famous person can also be an excellent opportunity to discuss death.

Death is often a taboo topic of conversation in our society. But if your child is curious about death, use the opportunity to instruct and prepare rather than shut the conversation down. We want to make sure our children feel comfortable coming to us when they have questions.

If you are anticipating the death of a loved one, allow children to see and care for the dying person if they want to, but don’t force it. For children, it can also help to be involved in a meaningful goodbye. It might be tempting to try to shield them from the pain of loss, but the pain will be there no matter what. It is better to help them develop healthy coping skills.

Children may also be worried about what will happen to them after somebody dies. For example, if Grandma watches your child after school, your child might worry about what will happen after her death. Be clear with your children about what changes they can expect and let them know that their needs will be taken care of.

Be aware of your child’s developmental stage

How children perceive death has a lot to do with their age and developmental stage. It is very common for children to experience different stages of grief as they mature. For example, a child who has lost her father at two-years-old is going to feel very differently than she will when she is 18 and her father isn’t there to attend her graduation. It can be painful to dig up old wounds, but your child will need help and a good listener throughout her life.

Children’s understanding of death changes with their maturity:

2-5 Years: Preschool children will often feel loss and will be aware of the grief of those around them, but they don’t understand the permanence or nature of death. They might think it is something that can be reversed. It isn’t uncommon to see your child regress with potty training or to revert to using baby talk.

5-9 Years: Children start to understand that death is permanent, but it is still impersonal. They might think that somehow it won’t ever affect them. They might also personify death as a skeleton or grim reaper—even having nightmares about him. Children might need reassurance that death isn’t their fault or something they could have prevented.

9+ Years: Children will slowly start to understand that all living things must die, including themselves, and that it is not reversible. During this stage, they might start to develop philosophies on life and death.

Children don’t always show immediate grief, but it will come as they mature and are ready to handle those feelings. Their personality will also play a large part in how they express grief. It is not uncommon for a child to be happy and playing one minute and then sad or angry the next.

Allow your children to express their feelings

Death is hard on all of us, but for children it can be especially confusing and scary. Children need to know that they have our permission to talk about death and ask questions. We must show them that we care about their feelings and views. Resist the urge to dismiss feelings and take time to really listen. This is also a great way to learn what your child understands and what they might be struggling with. Avoiding painful things does not protect our children, it only makes it harder for them to tell us how they feel.

Tips:

  • Reading an age-appropriate book about death can help foster understanding and spark a conversation.
  • If your child struggles with using words to express feelings, things like drawing, acting out stories, or looking at photo albums can help.
  • Children will often feel guilty about the death of a loved one. It is important that children know that the death was not their fault or a punishment.
  • Children will often blame somebody for the death, maybe the person who died or somebody involved. Anger is a part of grief. The best reaction is not to reprimand, but to listen and accept their feelings.
  • Children often misunderstand or jump to inaccurate conclusions. Make sure children understand what you said by asking questions and letting them know that they can talk to you if they are confused.
  • If you don’t know an answer, it is okay to tell your child that. Eventually, your child will figure out that you don’t know everything. Honestly admitting to it will help them feel more comfortable about not having all the answers themselves.
  • Don’t avoid talking about the person who has passed away. Sharing happy memories is an important part of the healing process.
  • Allow your child to see your own emotions in an age-appropriate way. Children will often model their parents’ behavior. Seeing you grieve will help teach them healthy coping skills.
  • It is an important part of the healing process to allow children to mourn in their own way and time. This means that children should be allowed to play and socialize when they want to and cry and mourn when they need to. It is okay for a child to have fun, even after the death of a loved one.

Use simple, clear explanations

Children have short attention spans and can be easily overwhelmed. If you are wondering what kind of information your child is ready for, their questions can be a great indicator. Answer questions honestly and simply—avoid long, overwhelming lectures. Your child doesn’t have to understand everything at once. You will have lots of time to explain things as your child matures.

Tips:

  • Remember that children learn through repetition, so don’t be surprised if they ask the same questions again and again.
  • Don’t use euphemisms when talking about death. They can be confusing for children who often take them literally. For example, telling your child that “Grandpa went to sleep” may create a fear that going to sleep means you might not wake up. Or that “Grandpa went away” could trigger separation anxiety because your child might be afraid you won’t come back.
  • If somebody has died of an illness, make sure your child understands that most sickness doesn’t end in death—only a very serious illness. Children might be afraid that if they get sick, they won’t get well again.
  • Don’t take questions personally. Children are still learning social norms and their questions might sometimes seem inappropriate. Be careful not to shut them down, but to answer honestly.
  • Children often have a hard time knowing what they want to ask, so you may need to follow up with additional questions. For example, if children ask, “Are you going to die?” they might be worried about what will happen to them if you do. Remind them that they are safe and will be taken care of.
  • Religion can be a source of comfort, but be aware of how your child perceives things. For example, telling your child that his friend’s death was God’s will may make him angry at God or scared that God will come and take away more people.

Prepare your children for the funeral

Allow your children to attend the funeral if they want to, but don’t force them. Be sure to prepare them for what will happen and what they will see. For example, “The funeral is a time to say goodbye to Grandpa and to remember how wonderful he is. Sometimes goodbyes can be hard, so you will probably notice a lot of people crying. It is okay if you cry too. We will sing songs, tell stories about Grandpa, talk, and eat food together. Spending time together and sharing good memories can help us feel better. If you need me, you can come hold my hand or stand by me.”

If there will be an open casket, you will want to tell them that this is one of the ways we say goodbye. Whether or not they go up to the casket should be their choice. Make sure you or somebody else your children trust is open and available for questions during the funeral.

If you are worried about how your child is adjusting after the death of a loved one, talk to your pediatrician. Everybody heals differently and some of us might need a little more help. Your pediatrician can help identify any problems or recommend some good support groups.

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