Helping Children Through Their Grief

In the world of a child, loss can be devastating.

Because most of us are not all that comfortable with our own mortality, we tend to protect children from any contact with death. It is natural to want to shield them from having to face such things until they are older. We seem to fear some kind of permanent scarring if they are exposed to any grief. A woman told me her child’s best friend had died and she had not told her child anything about the death. When I asked why not she said, “Well, won’t that make my child grieve?” I said, “It will if you are lucky.” Grief is a process of expressing feelings that leads to healing. Children need to grieve. They do so in their own time and in their own way, but they need the right to work through grieving experiences and find healing.

Too often our efforts at protection leave it all to the child’s imagination. Those things left to imagination can become much more intense and more frightening to the child. Too often the child decides this happened because of something they did or said. “David died because I wet the bed,” or, “I said I wish they would die and they did.” Involving the children and letting them talk out their feelings is the best way to avoid this kind of blaming.

The death of a loved one is a painful and confusing experience for anyone at any age. For a child, though, it can be especially traumatic and can present special challenges for parents, grandparents and other adults in a child’s life. Children look to adults for support, answers and advice while they work their way through grief and try to develop an understanding of death.

Signs of Grief

Each child’s reaction to death will be unique and may be experienced on many different levels. Signs of grief can include:

  • Acting out
  • Fatigue or a lack of energy
  • Changes in grades
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Headaches, stomachaches or skin rashes
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing
  • Regressive behavior, such as thumb sucking, bed wetting or clinging
  • Ultimately, it is impossible to protect children from the pain of losing someone they love. Trying to hide the death from a child will only delay his or her inevitable realization that the person is no longer a part of their life. It is better to include your children in the mourning experience and teach them a healthy way to deal with their feelings.

Talking to a Child About Death

As hard as it may be to break bad news to a child, honesty is the best policy. A white lie, however well intended, can confuse and unsettle a child when they eventually learn the truth. Likewise, explaining death to a child in euphemisms — “Grandpa went on a long trip,” for example — may instill fear in going on vacation. Difficult though it may be, it’s better to be clear, direct and upfront, explaining death in straightforward phrases like “dead means a person’s body has stopped working and won’t work anymore.”

It’s important that children be allowed to share in the grieving process. Encourage children to cry out their grief and talk about their thoughts and feelings about death. Be sure to share your grief, too. Seeing you grieve will let children know that it is normal and healthy to cry and feel sad after death. Also, take time to listen. Children, too, need to talk about loss and the feelings connected to it.

Perhaps the most important form of support you can offer is continuous love and assurance. Children need to know they are loved to feel secure. By being present and available during the mourning process, you can help the child bear the pain. So can other adults in the family. Don’t be afraid to turn to a family friend or another trusted adult to help provide much needed comfort, concern and care.

Five Ways to Help a Grieving Child

  1. Be there for children. Listen when they need to talk and hug them when they need comfort.
  2. Share fond memories about your loved one with them and encourage them to share their own memories.
  3. Encourage the child to draw a picture or write a letter to your loved one, which could even be incorporated into the funeral.
  4. Frame a photograph of your loved one for the child or give them another memento by which to remember your loved one (such as an often-read book, a favorite pin, etc.).
  5. Involve children in the funeral. Invite them to read a poem or letter they have written or sing or play a song during the service.

“I was 8 when my father died. It was very difficult, but I remember being at his funeral and hearing family and friends talk about him and it made me very proud. After that funeral, I knew things were going to be all right.”

Understanding Children’s Grief

A common question asked by many adults is, “Should a child be allowed to attend a funeral?” The answer is yes. Like adults, children recognize the need to celebrate the life of a loved one. Attending a funeral allows a child to be a part of the family at a time when they need love and attention the most. If the child is leery of the funeral, you can arrange a private moment before or after the service for the child to say goodbye. The important thing is to not isolate the child from the situation.

Knowing what to expect at the funeral is very reassuring for children. Be honest and clear when explaining the details. Remember, children take things very literally, so try not to be vague in your explanations. For young children, simple statements are sufficient. For example, explaining that a funeral is a way to say goodbye or that a casket is a “nice box that holds the body” will help remove the mystery and uncertainty surrounding a funeral.

Years from now, children may not remember specific details of a funeral they attended. But by participating, they’ll take away something even more important — that they played an active role in celebrating the life of their loved one.

“Building Memories: Planning a Meaningful Funeral.” Building Memories: Planning a Meaningful Funeral, by Doug Manning, In-Sight Books, 2011.