Children understand and cope with loss differently than adults. Adults can help children through the grief process by creating a safe space for grief and helping children develop healthy coping skills. Healing from grief is a process—not an event—and takes time, even for children. You can support this process by fostering an environment that allows the grieving child the time, space and memories to begin healing.
The following tips offer insight in helping children who are experiencing grief:
- Allow children to observe others mourning. Explain the feelings behind the behaviors, and don’t attach any shame to these feelings. By modeling appropriate grieving behavior, you give children permission to grieve, too. Don’t insist that a child be a “brave little man” when he is a scared little boy.
- Allow children to be angry, but not destructive or violent. Help your children to talk it out by listening without judgement.
- Reassure children that they will be cared for, loved and cherished as before. The greatest fear of bereaved children is that of being left out or deserted.
- Be tolerant. It is normal for children confronted with a loss to regress to levels below their present levels of maturity.
Talking About Death
- Use natural circumstances to teach children about loss and death before it occurs in the family (e.g., death of a pet, seasonal changes, etc.).
- Encourage children to ask questions. Do this repeatedly. Listen as children tell you about their own unique grief experiences.
- Explain that the loss is not the children’s fault. Discourage children’s “magical thinking.” However, accept each child’s expressions of guilt or regret and offer reassurance.
- When speaking about death, use appropriate words of finality: “death” or “died,” not “going to sleep,” “passing on,” or “becoming an angel.”
- Provide simple, direct, honest and calm explanations following a loss or death. Deception or hiding the facts will cause children to feel betrayed and erode the trust they have in you. If a child has questions, keep your answers short, allowing the child to respond. If you don’t have an answer, say so.
- Touch, hug and hold your children. Non-verbal communication is the most powerful and direct way of telling children you care.
- Don’t give up on discipline. Maintain usual routines, limits and agendas. Consistency is crucial as children adapt to changes the loss brings.
- Allow children to participate in any and all rituals around the loss, such as the funeral, but don’t force them to do so. Children should be made to feel they are an important part of the family. Describe the proceedings in detail beforehand. Consider providing a private time for children with the deceased before the viewing or funeral, and allow them to say goodbye in whatever manner they wish. Alternative types of personal memorials between children and the deceased may be more appropriate or meaningful, such as planting a tree, painting a picture or making a memory book.
- Allow children opportunities to be children. Children do not sustain their grief as adults do, and often vent their emotions through play.
- Allow for forms of remembrance, such as talking about the loved one who has died. This assures children that “dead” does not mean “forgotten.” Be natural about this, and children will feel free to do the same.
Notes for Parents & Guardians
- Remember that you cannot help facilitate your children’s grief unless you are attending to your own grief. Seek out support for yourself, as well, as your child.
- Provide information to other significant adults in your children’s lives (e.g., teachers, day care providers) about the loss the children are experiencing. Enlist their help in supporting your children and helping them handle the topic with peers.