For many of us, imaging a child grieving is excruciating. Losing a loved one in childhood is among the most difficult, yet most common, childhood traumatic events. As difficult as it is to fathom, we know that death is a part of life and that children must grieve the loss of loved ones.
It's important to remember that whether you’re a parent or another supportive adult, remember - no one’s perfect, especially when grieving themselves. Give yourself grace and take to heart that the more present you are with your own grief, the more supportive you’ll be for the children in your life.
It's also important to know there are ways we can model effective grieving and support the children we care about as they grieve. This list provides some starting points and evidence-based considerations for how to support a grieving child.
- Tell the truth, don’t hide information. This causes children to feel confused and mistrustful of other information that may follow. At the same time, try to avoid unnecessary information. What’s unnecessary may depend on the developmental age of the child. Use your discretion to determine what’s necessary to share the truth and what’s not.
- Be simple and direct. Use correct words and language. Although this may be difficult for adults, don’t use euphemisms such as: "he went to sleep," "he passed on," and "we've lost him." Saying, “he has died” can actually be a lot less confusing for children.
- Reassure children they are not to blame.
- Model appropriate responses. Don’t hide your emotions. Set the tone by expressing your own feelings and explain them to help children understand their own feelings they may be having. There’s a helpful handout that shows the facial expressions behind many common feelings. This can help children learn to better identify their feelings.Feeling faces printable coloring sheet – Art of Social Work (wordpress.com)
- Find ways for the child to be involved with the death. Visiting when a loved one is in the hospital and participating or attending the funeral rituals can demystify events for children and provide closure.
- Encourage children to talk and ask questions. Find out what they’re thinking and feeling about the death.
- Become attuned to and respond to the child's own pace for revealing feelings. Offer opportunities to comfort them by being available whenever they’re ready and might be experiencing some strong emotions.
- Allow and encourage expression in private ways outside of talking with you. This could include the use of journals, art, playing music or other creative activities.
- Acknowledge and affirm children's expressions. There’s no one right way for anyone to grieve. Ideally, no one should feel embarrassed about their grief response. Help children feel accepted for expressing their grief by assuring them it’s normal, and there’s no one way to express their emotions.
- Have more than one conversation. Be available and look for teachable compassionate moments and opportunities to further explore what death and grief means to them.
- Provide understanding, support, and extra guidance or assistance with school work, social activities, and chores as necessary.
- Explore their feelings about the new situation and death. Understand their beliefs and how being confronted with death can stimulate related personal feelings. For example, they might have fears they will die in the same way as their loved one, and they may also worry about their security now that their loved one is gone.
- Realize children make comparisons; they may respond to and wish for things to be the way they used to be, compare times before and after the death and subsequent events, compare the surviving parent to the one who has died, or their life to that of others. Try to hold space for this without “fixing” it or taking it personally.
- Talk to and enlist the support of other adults (such as teachers and coaches) who are in contact with the children.
- Work together with the child to talk about spirituality and if a personally tailored mourning ritual would be supportive. A ritual the child can help create, possibly with close friends honoring their loved one can be supportive way to involve them and their peers.
- Encourage and help the child to collect objects, sometimes called “linking objects” that belonged to their deceased loved one, or new things that represent their loved one to them. This helps to maintain memories and keep a connection.
Sharing grief with children might be one of the hardest things we do. Many well intentioned adults want to hide difficult things from children, but when dealing with grief we know that this creates more harm than good. We must be truthful with children while assessing exactly how much detail to go into.
Based on the child’s age, we can tailor exactly what to share, being careful not to hide anything. Additionally, we should expect to revisit this again and again with children. They’ll have questions that come up over time and you and your child will be able to process that grief together.
Remember to stay connected to the children you care about, as well as the supportive adults in your life. Children are looking to adults in their lives for models of what they should do. In the same way you check in that your child has adequate support, you need support with your grief as well and owe it to yourself and the children in your life. Please reach out to those friends; the ones you know will listen. Accept their help, share and be vulnerable. This is how we work through, adapt and come together in difficult times.
- Children and Grief: What They Know, How They Feel, How to Help by Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D.
- Children and Grief: What They Know, How They Feel, How to Help - Flipbook by | FlipHTML5
With research from
- Alvis, L., Zhang, N., Sandler, I.N. & Kaplow, J.B. (2023) Developmental Manifestations of Grief in Children and Adolescents: Caregivers as Key Grief Facilitators. Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, 16, 447-457, https://doi.org/10.1007/s40653-021-00435-0