Helping children grieve

When someone near and dear to you and your family has passed away, telling your children adds another layer of grief to the sadness you may already be feeling. As a parent, your children’s emotional well-being is a constant concern and you are bound to dread being the one to expose them to sadness and grief.

How you approach the subject of death depends on the age of your child, previous experience with death, if any, and how close a relationship the child had with the deceased loved one. The death of an uncle who lived at a distance and visited occasionally is not going to have the same impact as the passing of a grandparent who lived nearby and was a daily presence in the child’s life or the unexpected demise of a friend or classmate. Both situations will invoke sadness, of course, but in the latter cases the sense of loss could be more intense.

How to tell your kids about the death of a loved one:

Create an atmosphere of comfort and trust

Pick the time and place carefully, in order to mitigate distractions and interruptions. Preface the news with reassurance to your child that he/she is well loved by many for being a special person and although this is a sad time, ongoing support and comfort will be provided by you and others whenever there is a need. Keep the actual announcement as honest as possible. Use realistic terms: Died and passed away are much easier for a child to grasp than a vague phrase such as, “went away,” which might suggest a temporary status.

Keep the explanation age appropriate

Until the age of 5 or 6, children do not have refined comprehension, so keep the announcement simple and straightforward. Be prepared to answer any questions and listen empathetically to the child’s responses to the sad news. Assure the child that anytime he/she wishes to talk about the deceased or sad feelings are experienced you, or some other trusted adult, will always be available.  

Children aged six to ten or twelve are more mature and might have had experience with death or at least a better understanding of the finality. Your explanation can be more detailed and reaction to the loss might be more emotional. Be reassuring that there is no blame, for children often assume blame in situations out of their control. Have no expectations about how the child chooses to react. Some children go on with their activities as if nothing is wrong in life and that is okay, for children have different ways of coping with their feeling than adults. Be aware and understanding of any out-of-character behavior, such as a drop in grades, outbursts of temper or other negative actions. Patience and understanding is needed and if your own grief is too pronounced, do elicit the help of another relative or close friend to keep a watchful eye on your grieving child.

Teenagers totally get that everyone dies eventually and their grief might be on par with your own. Again, refrain from having expectations about behavior and allow your teens to assimilate the news, deal with it and find closure in their own way and time frame, with the verbalized reassurance that you will be there for them.

If you have specific spiritual beliefs, share them with your child at his/her level of understanding as an additional supportive tool for coping with grief.

Explain that a funeral is a celebration of their loved one’s life, but do leave it to the discretion of the child whether he/she wishes to attend, with no pressure or judgment on your part. If the child does opt to attend, prepare that youngster for the fact that others might be visibly sad and a level of comfort might be compromised for all.

When time has passed, if you notice that your child has not rallied from a grieving state, do employ the help of books with advice about grief, a spiritual counselor or a mental therapist to guide your youngster to a happier mental state.

Parents cannot protect their children from sadness and loss, but they can support them through it using the above coping strategies.