Losing a loved one is a tragic experience which can be especially hard on children. A child who loses a parent, sibling, a close relative, or even a pet, can feel a deep sense of loss that they do not fully understand. We all grieve in our own unique way, but children don’t have the same coping strategies as adults and need extra support and encouragement to cope with grief.
It can be difficult to talk about death with a child, particularly if you are also grieving, but it is important to be honest and straightforward so they understand exactly what happened. A clear explanation is helpful for young children who sometimes think that a loved one died because they did something wrong, causing unnecessary guilt and anxiety. Older children may understand the permanence of death but they still need reassurance and support to help manage their feelings.
Children’s Grief Awareness Day, observed every year on the third Thursday in November, is an annual reminder that grieving children often feel alone and misunderstood. Family members and close friends should be advocates for children who have lost a loved one, and learn to recognize signs of stress so they can offer a listening ear and extra love and attention.
When discussing death, avoid using vague words/phrases such as “passed away” or “went to sleep” which most children cannot relate to. In addition, make every effort to answer all their questions, no matter how difficult they may be. Children can tell if you are hiding information from them, so be truthful and show them that you understand their fears and concerns.
Here are a few ways to help children cope with grief:
Let your child know it’s natural to express grief by showing sadness, anger, frustration, depression, etc. Expressing strong emotions is a normal method of coping with loss and coming to terms with unexpected life events. Validate your child’s feelings and don’t be afraid to let them see you grieving as well. Bereaved children look to adults for emotional and spiritual guidance so be vulnerable and share your grief with them as best you can.
It’s quite normal to take children to a funeral, although it usually depends on the age of the child and their overall maturity level. Taking part in a funeral or memorial service allows children to say goodbye to the deceased, and the opportunity to commune with others who are also mourning helps them to see that they are not alone in their grief.
Don’t tiptoe around the fact that someone has died, e.g., by not saying their name, removing all their personal items from the household. You might think this protects the child from grief, but your actions could signify you think the deceased person is no longer important when their memory is still very much alive in the child’s mind.
Grief is a journey, not a destination. Children who are coping with a loss should be encouraged to remember the deceased by sharing special stories or memorable conversations as often as possible. Many families hold memorial services during the holidays or on significant anniversaries to honor and remember their loved ones.
Memorializing people who have died is a good way to cope with grief for both adults and children. Planning a special remembrance tribute can encourage a child to actively manage their feelings over a loss. Here are 15 ideas to help you celebrate the life of a loved one.
Back to Knowledge Center