Helping Children with Grief

Parents and caregivers worry about the children – how do I tell them about the death? How do I help them? How much should I protect them? Children are amazingly resilient and often teach us about how to handle grief.

How do I tell them?
Tell them in gentle but concrete words. Using phrases such as “She has gone on a long trip,” “He went to sleep,” or “He passed away” can give a child the impression that the deceased will one day return or that it’s not safe to go to sleep. Children will fill in unanswered questions with wild ideas – maybe the loved one “left” because of something they did or said. Use facts without unnecessary elaboration – “He was very sick and the doctors did everything they could to keep them alive.” “She died in a car accident.” Children will ask for more information when they are ready to handle it.

Let the child know that it’s OK to cry.
Often adults will want to shield children from tears and unintentionally give the message that tears are bad. If a child never sees anyone grieve, they may feel that their loved one is not missed or was not loved.

Children do not need to be sheltered from funerals and similar ceremonies.  
Children need to say good-bye. Adults can send the wrong message by not allowing children to be a part of the family at wakes and funerals. The children’s understanding level and age should be taken into consideration – forcing a child to be at on open casket funeral or to speak at a funeral can be as traumatic as not offering the opportunity to do so if they wish.

Children do not show their grief in the same manner as adults.
Children will often regress to younger behaviors – thumb sucking, bed wetting, whining, or having temper tantrums – in an effort to let adults know their needs. This is a normal attempt to go to a “safer time” and is their way of letting adults know they need extra love and assurance. Children will sometimes appear to show no emotion; they play and act like nothing has happened. This “dosing” of emotion is their way of not being overwhelmed by the pain of losing someone. Avoid shaming a child to “act their age” or “be a big girl/strong little man.”

Allow the child to share memories and stories.
Part of the grief journey is acknowledging the death and moving from present tense language to past tense/memory language. Allowing this helps to reassure that the positive, loving memories do not change the relationship the child had with their loved one.

Notify teachers, pediatricians and caretakers of the death.
These people are important in the child’s life and can help support them. Open communication lines will also help identify if extra support is needed for the child. Seek guidance from others if counseling would be helpful to the child and family.

Children are resilient and can teach adults much about handling grief. Support, love and clear age-appropriate language will help a child with their grief.