Understanding Grief and Children
For any individual, especially children, absence of a person takes time to fully accept. Sometimes, it’s hard to know if you are making the right choices for your child through their grief journey, but it’s important to follow your gut instincts. You know your child best. Trust yourself to educate your child and answer their questions in a way that will be most beneficial to them. Remember, your child will most likely need to talk about how they’re feeling more than once. Each conversation with your child will matter because it is coming from you.
Your child will also learn how to handle their grief by watching what you do to cope. This is why it’s important to care for yourself and consider your own wellness. Call in help, go to bed early, eat well, take walks and talk to someone (such as our bereavement coordinator) who can be there for you. Sometimes, just speaking with a professional for reassurance in the way you’re helping your child grieve is all you need. We are honored to support our hospice family members, navigate through the grieving process with their child.
Here are 10 ways to help your child, who may be having difficulty processing the finality of death, cope with the death of a loved one:
- Explain the loss.
Children have difficulty processing lengthy explanations, but they do need facts. When talking about death, use simple, clear words. Tell your child about a death in a comfortable space where they feel they can react in a way that is natural to them. Pause to give your child a moment to take in your words. Take your cues from your child, and allow them to ask for further explanations.
- Figure out how to say goodbye.
Determine whether or not it’s appropriate for your child to attend a funeral. If you feel it is appropriate for your child, consider designating a caregiver for your child in case things get too emotional. However, children should be given the chance to say goodbye in a way that is comfortable to them. You can help your child make their own decision by preparing them for what they will see at the funeral home or service. Describe how their loved one will look and how other people will be feeling. If the deceased is cremated, explain their choice and reasoning. Share your family’s beliefs about what happens to a person after death to prepare them for the service.
- Label and normalize feelings.
Help your child label their feelings, and label your own to provide an example. Help your child understand that it’s perfectly okay to feel sad, angry, hurt, overwhelmed, confused and even lonely. Let your child tell their own story about their grief, and be a good listener.
- Find ways to celebrate your loved one.
Young children will sometimes continue to ask to see their loved one for weeks/months following a loss. When your child misses or wants to see their loved one, consider remembering the loved one with your child in a creative way.
- Find healthy activities for you and your child.
Just as self-care helps adults cope with grief, self-care will also help your child.
- Provide reassurance
Children tend to be “egocentric,” meaning they worry about how life events will affect them personally. Be explicit about the steps you will take as a family to remain healthy. Visiting the doctor for check-ups, eating fruits and vegetables, getting regular exercise and getting adequate sleep are all steps toward good health. Your child will need frequent reminders that you are okay, and that they are, too.
- Encourage questions and think about your answers.
Understand and encourage your child to ask questions about loss and death. As an adult, don’t worry about knowing all the answers. It’s best to rely on facts (“Their body stopped working.”) and avoid phrases such as, “It was their time.” Vague answers, along with too much information, may leave your child confused and scared.
- Don’t avoid connecting with your child.
It’s okay that you’re not exactly sure what to say or do at all times. Sometimes a knowing look, touch or hug can offer the comfort your child needs.
- Try to limit the changes to your daily routine.
Try to keep to routines for work and school as much as possible. Keeping to a routine will limit the amount of changes occurring in your child’s life at this time.
- Give your child time.
Grief doesn’t go away overnight. Be sure to have ongoing conversations, and check in with your child on how they are feeling and doing. Let your child know it’s okay to cry. Expressing your sorrow over a loss means you’ve experienced a very special relationship that you miss. Ensure them that healing doesn’t mean forgetting their feelings or their loved one. It means remembering the person with love and letting happy memories give them good feelings as they move on with life.
For more ways to support your grieving child, see our resource booklet. While there is no “perfect handbook,” it is our hope that this booklet can aid you in helping your child through their grief.