When Children Grieve: Helping Kids Cope
Children experience grief not only in response to the death of a loved one, but whenever they experience a significant loss. They grieve when friends move away, when parents divorce, when pets run away, and even when a favorite toy is lost or stolen. Helping children deal with less extreme forms of grieving can help them to deal better with the death of a loved one.
Talking to kids about death
Adults tend to protect children from the facts of death. We often believe that children cannot understand or are not emotionally strong enough to deal with death directly. In fact, children are far more resilient and resourceful than we give them credit for. Children can understand sadness better than deception. When there is a death in the family, it is important to tell children the facts based on their developmental level and emotional needs.
Dealing with the death of a family member or close friend is one of the most difficult tasks you may ever have to face. There is no easy way to tell a child that a family member or close friend has died or is going to die, nor any way that is going to prevent great feelings of sadness or pain.
What can you say?
Be simple and truthful. The best way to talk with children about death is to be simple and truthful – use the words death, died and dying. For young children, the best explanations are those that draw on concrete experiences. Children learn that flowers, insects or even their pets die. It is also a good idea to have children explain in their own words what they have been told to explore misconceptions they may have. For older children, truthful explanations may be helpful in minimizing concerns about their own health and future. For example, saying:
“John was very ill. The doctors and nurses could not make him better, although they tried everything they knew. John’s body was so sick that it could not work anymore and he died. Being dead doesn’t hurt.“
It is important to avoid phrases that may give mixed messages. Phrases such as passed away, sleeping, taken from us, resting and gone away can be very confusing for children.
Do not hide your feelings
Do not hide your own grief. Let children know that feelings of sadness, blame, fear and anger are normal. Children are often less able to put thoughts and feelings into words and may express their feelings in other ways such as through their play. Children’s reactions will vary depending on their age and stage of development, the information conveyed concerning the death and their past experiences with death. Children may be unable to express their feelings, and may not know how to mourn, especially if a supportive adult is not available to help them cope. Reassure children you will be there for them and encourage them to share their feelings and concerns with you.
Helping children say goodbye
It is very important to help children feel that they are a part of this experience. This will help them understand and work through the death. The simple act of placing a flower on the grave enables children to participate with the family in a meaningful ritual and to sense the importance of the event. Some children may also find it comforting to share special items of remembrance and to write a letter to the person who has died. There are many different ways that children and adults say goodbye.
There are no easy answers or simple solutions for helping children cope with a death. Through the examples of adults, we can help them understand that their feelings are normal. We can provide them with honest answers, and we can give them our constant, reassuring love.
The following links provide more information for children and siblings dealing with loss.
- Death and Grief TeensHealth
- Talking to Your Parents – or Other Adults TeensHealth
- Sibling’s Grief Bereaved Parents of the USA
- When Somebody Dies KidsHealth Article