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What To Do When Your Child Is Grieving

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Dealing with the death of a family member or close friend can be a time of great challenge. One of the most difficult tasks following the death of a loved one is discussing and explaining the death with children and adolescents in the family. This comes at a time when parents and caregivers are dealing with their own grief, and may be drained of energy and emotions.

Often times, caregivers assume that children cannot cope with death, and may try to protect them from the pain and sadness associated with such a topic. Unfortunately, this natural tendency may leave a child feeling anxious, bewildered, and on their own to seek answers at a time when help and reassurance is most needed. The reality is that children will grieve anyway. Caregivers who are willing to be open and honest following a death will teach children grief is a natural feeling when a loved one dies. As a result, children learn about both the joy and pain that comes from caring deeply for other people.

The following are suggestions for helping children and adolescents cope with grief.

Infant/Toddler:

  • Keep routines as consistent as possible (keep regular mealtime, bath time, and bedtime schedules).
  • Meet increased attachment needs (eye contact, touching, holding, rocking, singing, etc.).
  • Encourage consistent nurturing by parent or other caregivers (limit the amount of caregivers).

 Preschool:

  • Be honest, use concrete terms such as death and dying. Even though they may seem harsh, they are less likely to allow for misconceptions later. “The body stopped working” is a helpful first definition of death including the person no longer needs to breath, eat, or sleep, and they no longer feel pain.
  • Avoid words used to describe death such as sleeping, resting, lost, passed away, or taking a trip. Children think in concrete terms and these phrases may give mixed messages.
  • Let the child know it is not their fault, and they did nothing to cause it to happen.
  • Prepare them for what to expect relating to good-bye rituals such as funerals, wakes, etc.
  • Respond to the child’s security needs such as who will take care of them.  Maintain schedules, routines, and activities when possible.

School-Age:

  • Respect their need to know, information gives a child a sense of control. Give an honest explanation for the person’s death, a child’s fears and fantasies are usually far worse when he or she is not told what is happening.
  • Encourage participation in the funeral/burial process. Allowing involvement helps the child feel included and as a valued member of the family.
  • Let them know their feelings, whatever they may be, are important. Adults that express their feelings give children permission to do the same.
  • Be available and supportive.

Adolescents:

  • Provide opportunities for open and honest discussion.
  • Don’t assume adolescents can handle their problems without help or support.
  • Be available but respectful of need for privacy.
  • Help them identify peers or other trusted adults with whom they can share their thoughts and feelings. This may be a great time to find a peer grief support group.
  • Discuss changes that may occur in the family structure.
  • Model healthy coping behaviors such as maintaining routines and activities.

Caregivers are often surprised at how quickly children begin adjusting to life after the death of a loved one. It is a child’s nature to put the past away and grow quickly toward the future. There may be times though when a child’s behavior indicates they are needing additional help coping with a loved ones death. The following are signs that may indicate your child needs outside intervention from a mental health professional:

  • When a child continually acts like absolutely nothing has happened.
  • When the child develops an extreme fear of school
  • When a child was lied to about the death.
  • When a child threatens suicide or repeatedly panics.
  • When a child is cruel to animals or physically abusive to other children.
  • When a child had a very difficult relationship to the person who has died.
  • When a child has become involved with drugs or alcohol.
  • When a child commits delinquent acts.
  • When a child refuses to socialize.
  • When a child displays consistent disturbances in sleeping and eating patterns.

Coping with death is difficult for everyone. Helping children feel like they are part of the experience, will allow them to understand and work through the death in a way that feels right to them.  It also allows them to gain emotional resources they can rely on throughout the rest of their life.

Bell, J. & Esterling, L. (1999). What will I tell the children? American Cancer Society.

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