Helping Children Cope With Grief

Death of a loved one is a natural part of our human experience, but it can be very confusing for children. Grief and loss is a complicated experience for adults, let alone young children.  They often do not have the language to articulate their feelings nor do they know how to cope with such painful emotions. Here are some ways to help children who are dealing with grief and loss.

Talk About Death In Ways Children Can Understand

As adults, we often use euphemisms when speaking about death, but I encourage you to avoid these when talking to your children. Don’t say “we lost grandpa,” as kids often have magical thinking and may interpret this to mean that he is literally lost and that they should start looking for him. Also, avoid saying things, like “she passed away.” Explain in simple and direct terms that someone has died, and if necessary, describe that that means someone’s heart has stopped and their body is not working anymore.  Many children will worry about their loved one being cold or frightened (much like they are feeling) and need reassurance, as well as information that the person who died can’t feel temperature, pain, or emotions any longer.

Adults and Children Grieve Differently

The way that children express sorrow after loss often looks very different than the way their parents do. Little ones often do not have the full understanding of what has happened, so it’s not uncommon to see them being playful or even rambunctious at a funeral. They often grieve in cycles, and sometimes those big feelings don’t come until later. Teenagers often keep their emotions inside, and while parents shouldn’t force them to talk about them, it’s a good idea to check in at night and to have some sort of touch and nurture in place to see how they are coping. All in all, adults should be prepared for a delayed grief response in their children.

Celebrate the Life of Your Loved Ones

One of the tough things about grief is that it simultaneously involves expressing great sorrow at the death of a loved one while also eventually finding joy and peace again by holding on to their memories. If your family has experienced a loss, I encourage you to celebrate that person’s birthday and continue to keep photographs up in the home. You can do something playful and fun in honor of them; it doesn’t always have to be sad!


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