How to Help a Grieving Child

For children, death can be a very confusing concept. Even if they may be aware of death, processing its finality is another matter. Some of the earliest losses a child usually experiences are the death of an animal, a beloved pet, or even a grandparent. Sheltering a child from death is an impossible task for any parent. Yet, how you choose to support your child through the painful aftermath can help them feel safe and comforted. By acknowledging and respecting your child’s grief process, you can properly address their mental health while providing good coping skills to weather the storms ahead.

Allow Them to Express Their Feelings

Like adults, grief is unique to each child and can affect them in unpredictable ways. As their minds absorb the loss, a child’s mood may run from volatile outbursts to quiet playtime. It’s all part of their grief process. Expecting a child to hold in emotions or barring them from normal, comforting activities only hinders their ability to manage their experience with death. Like any adult’s encounter with grief, it needs to be respected. Explosive reactions or quiet projects such as block-building, drawing, or reading a story are healthy responses to the trauma they are experiencing. That’s why it’s important to encourage children to express themselves as they cope with their grief.

Be Direct and Keep Communication Open

Death can bring up a lot of questions from children. Our minds race to find a gentle and appropriate answer when confronted with such a tricky subject. Tempting as they may be, try to stay away from euphemisms. For instance, describing death as “going to sleep” might worsen matters. Children are very literal. A new fear could be instilled about their bedtime. Being direct and honest with children helps to eliminate confusion, safeguards their mental health, and fortifies their coping skills. As more questions arise, remain approachable and keep the dialogue open. Your parent-child bond will strengthen as your child feels safe and heard when grieving.

Be Sensitive to Their Developmental Stage

Whether they are toddlers or teenagers, meet your child at their developmental stage. For very young children, it isn’t necessary to overwhelm them by offering lots of information. If they have questions, certainly do your best to answer them. Just remember that ideas such as forever, permanent, and death may not yet be concepts they can understand. School-age children may think they have something to do with the death and sadness surrounding them. Of course, it’s not true, but that’s their understanding of the situation. Feelings of shame or guilt can arise. Let them hear from you that it’s not their fault. Older school-age children have a firmer grasp of death. Their curiosity may focus more on what happens to a person after they die. Fear of their own death can start to enter their mind for the first time. This idea can be quite overwhelming for them. Being present and discussing their concerns can help alleviate your child’s fears. So stay tuned in to your child’s response to death and respect their developmental stage’s interpretation.

Maintain Routines

Children find great comfort and safety in structure and routine. As soon as possible, try to return to the healthy, normal practices they’re used to. Restarting regular, everyday routines doesn’t mean that you or your child are ignoring that the death occurred. You’re supporting good mental health for your child. Maintaining routines helps to ground them. With normal habits, children thrive; the expectations of their day are clear. They feel safe, secure, and reassured. If they’re still overwhelmed with their grief, try modifying some routines. Coping with grief is challenging at any age, and leaning into the bedrock of their normal life will help stabilize them.

Discuss the Afterlife

For some grieving children, the concept of an afterlife may offer comfort. Knowing that the person or pet they have lost lives on beyond this life in a special way can be an amazing revelation. If your family has religious beliefs, bonding over these sacred values can be comforting and empowering. It’s certainly okay if religion doesn’t play a strong role in your family’s lives. Children can still be soothed by the idea of a person or pet living on in the hearts and minds of those who grieve their loss. Just be mindful not to tell a child that the deceased has “gone on to a better place.” To a child, the best place is by their side, not somewhere else. Supporting a child in creating a memorial for their departed loved one is a beautiful way for them to process the loss. A child can honor their loss in several ways, such as drawing a picture, planting a tree, or writing a letter.

Consider Attending the Funeral Service

The decision to allow your child to attend the funeral is personal. It depends on your child’s comfort as well as your own. Funerals can be a helpful and moving experience for a child, offering closure. However, if they aren’t up for it, then it’s not a good idea to force them. For children interested in attending, prepare them for what they should expect. Funerals can be emotionally exhausting and overwhelming. They may witness a wide range of emotions from others in mourning. Also, the presence of a casket or ashes may be unsettling for children. Even when prepared, a child may still become very upset. Ultimately, neither you nor your child will know what to expect until you’re at the funeral. Staying receptive and supportive of your child’s grief process will allow you to be the source of comfort and strength they need when coping with loss.

Guiding a child through their grief process can be challenging for any parent. There are no predictable step-by-step rules to follow. Each child will have their own unique response to death.
The most important thing you can do is show up. Be there for your child. Shower them with love, and you’ll get through the grief process together. Your child can gain strong coping skills, manage grief, and find joy again with your love and support.

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