How to Help Your Child Grieve
Grandpa Joe has terminal cancer. Great-aunt Susie is in the nursing home hospital ward. Your child’s classmate just died in a car accident. Terrorist attacks and reports of wars fill the evening news …
Death is an ever-present fact of life, yet even adults face it only with difficulty. Here are some tips to help your children through the grieving process.
- Teach that death is part of life. Parents often avoid talking about death in an effort to protect children from unpleasantness. Instead, look for teachable moments. Wilting flowers, changing seasons or the death of a family pet provides an opportunity to show death as a part of life. Visit elderly friends or relatives to show children that aging is normal. Children will accept and confront death if adults allow it.
- Be honest. Present the information in a straightforward manner with age-appropriate information by explaining, “Granddad died last night.” Avoid saying, “He went to sleep” or “He’s gone away.” These terms leave children wondering if they will die when they go to sleep or if the person is coming back.
- Don’t delay telling about a death. Delaying can do more harm than good. If you wait, someone else may tell your child or he will overhear it in conversation. Learning the news from you is less frightening.
- Answer questions. Some children are satisfied with the facts. Others will ask a multitude of questions. Allow questions and answer them, even admitting when you don’t have the answer.
- Recognize fears. Death can be a scary concept for children. If your child expresses fear about seeing the body or going to the funeral, don’t force the issue. Comfort and reassure your child following a death of somebody he knows.
- Let them see you grieve. Children need to know that grieving is acceptable. Allow children to see you cry. Emotional pain is part of losing a loved one.
- Cherish the memories. Continue to talk about the loved one who died. Look through photo albums, talk about funny things the deceased said or reminisce about pleasant experiences.
Children take their cues from us and model their reactions accordingly. Show them that death and grief are parts of life.
What can you do to help children when they lose a grandparent, friend, sibling or parent?
0- to 3-year-olds
Children under age 3 do not understand death, but they do grasp the concept of “here” or “not here.” For toddlers, use words that will explain why the loved one is not “here” in concrete terms. “Daddy was very sick, and he is no longer here.”
The most important thing in young children’s lives during this time is consistency. Pay careful attention to physical needs, such as proper rest and nutrition. Then let children know through affirming words and actions that they will be cared for and safe.
4- to 7-year-olds
Beth K. Vogt’s son Josh was 4 when his grandmother died. Josh wanted to know how NaNa knew the directions to get to heaven. Beth told him Jesus helped NaNa get there.
Josh looked at her and then into the sky and asked, “Mom, is Jesus an astronaut?”
When loss affects 4- to 7-year-olds, they often become verbal, asking where the person went and why. They may believe death is temporary and expect their loved one to return. When children realize their loss is permanent, they may become clingy, throw tantrums, wet the bed or suck their thumb. Normal behavior will return in time, but children need to figure out how to express their grief in a more positive manner.
Be patient with their temporary behavior, but give them an opportunity to express their grief in more creative ways, such as making a book out of photos of their loved one. When kids can work with the photos and add words, they are learning to face their loss and say or write things that have formerly been kept inside. To help them in their process, you can read their book out loud with them and ask them if they want to add anything. The book becomes a tangible, touchable reminder of their loved one.
8- to 12-year-olds
When Teresa Grigg’s daughter died, her son Ryan was at the hospital the last few days before her death. He and his cousin played in the waiting room or the hospital playroom. When Mallory unexpectedly died, he felt guilty for playing. His sister was younger, and they had a lot of fusses with each other. He struggled with these additional feelings of guilt.
It’s not unusual for children this age to personalize the death of a loved one. Teresa says, “We let Ryan know that it was normal for brothers and sisters to fuss. We let him know that she did not die because he didn’t give her more attention or because he was playing at the hospital. We assured him, not just one time, but many times.”
Parents can help tweens celebrate the life of their loved one by planting a flower or tree in their own yard. The plant is a reminder that the person actually did live.
Parents can also do the things their child liked to do with the loved one and do it together to make new memories. At holidays, such as Christmas, the family can make an ornament to honor the loved one, and celebrate the loved one’s birthday in gratitude for the time they had that person in their life.
Concerned adults hugged the 16-year-old and asked questions. The quiet teenager struggled with losing his dad and wanted life to be normal again. He was angry. He hadn’t had time to process his own feelings, much less comfort or assure adults or family members that he was going to be “OK.”
When a teen loses someone he loves, he often assumes an adult role. Explain that it’s OK not to have or know the right words, to feel a lot of different emotions and to mourn his changing world. Then make sure he knows you are available when he is ready to talk.
The first few days after a death and the holiday periods are often the most difficult times for a grieving teen. Here are two ways to help teens through these times:
- Give teens a video camera. When visitors arrive or ask probing questions, teens can ask a friend or family member to share a special memory instead of answering their questions. Behind the camera, the focus is shifted from the teen to a special or fun memory.
- As a holiday approaches, come up with a new tradition that honors the person — your relationship — and nurtures a sense of family.
A Harvard University study lists four tasks that all children, no matter their age, need to deal with concerning grief:
- Accept the reality of loss.
- Experience the emotional aspects of loss.
- Adjust to an environment in which a loved one is missing.
- Find ways to remember or honor that person.
Teresa Griggs concludes, “Don’t expect children to get over it in a few days, or even a few weeks. When children lose a loved one, their lives are changed. Grief is truly a process.”
When Kids Grieve
How to help your child deal with loss
Our daughter Katie was in first grade when she began throwing temper tantrums. They began just after we moved from Arizona to New York where I had accepted a job.
We sought counsel from a child psychologist. After a brief visit with Katie, the psychologist told us, “Your daughter is grieving over serious losses. She focuses most of her sadness on a kitten that got left behind when your family moved, but she’s also grieving over losing friends and her grandparents. She’s looking for a way to express that sadness.”
The psychologist offered the recommendations listed below:
- When she starts to act up, don’t isolate her. She hasn’t felt safe to express sadness or anger around you because you send her to her room “until she can behave.”
- Ask her how she’s feeling. Is she disappointed, sad, angry?
- Whatever she says, listen and allow her to cry and be angry. She may need to tell you that she’s angry at you for taking her away from her home.
- After she has expressed her sadness, reaffirm your love for her. She needs to know you still love her even though she experiences negative feelings.
The first time Katie acted up after that visit, it was difficult to hear her cry and tell me she was mad at me. I brought her onto my lap and held her as she sobbed. That interaction resulted in a dramatic change for the better in the way Katie and I related to one another. Since then, my wife and I have worked hard to allow negative feelings to be appropriately expressed by all three of our kids.
Our rule has been, “You can cry and tell us how you feel, but you can’t hurt yourself or someone else or break things.”
Grief takes time and has multiple expressions. Each expression gets easier and takes less time. Our experience shows that when we behave with maturity while our kids grieve like children, they see strength in us and learn to imitate our more controlled behavior.
Katie is now happily married and well-adjusted. She’ll make a great mother someday — one who allows her children to express their feelings.
Next Steps and Related Information
Additional resources helping your child work through grief
Popular questions on this topic:
- Should I allow my young children to visit a terminally ill relative?
- What’s the best way to talk about death with a child?
- My teen feels depressed because our family recently moved. What should I do?
- Someone I Love Died
- When Your Family’s Lost a Loved One (Paperback)
- Helping Children Grieve: When Someone They Love Dies