When you lose a loved one – a family member, friend or even a pet – it's natural to experience grief. As a parent, you can take positive steps to help your children deal with their sorrow – and help yourself, too.
How do I tell my child that someone died?
Talking about death with children is difficult for many reasons. For children of all ages, be gentle, but straightforward. Using simple, clear language about death is best to help them understand.
"For younger children, avoid saying phrases like 'passed away,' because they won't understand what that means," advises Katherine Venta, LCSW, Behavioral Health Care Manager at Children's Health℠. "Tell them you're sad because your loved one died, and this means that their body stopped working and you won't see them anymore. You can soften the conversation by explaining that your happy memories of that person will last forever."
Of course, what you say depends on what happened:
- If your loved one was sick for a long time, you can explain that the person is no longer experiencing pain.
- If the person had an injury or accident, that may be harder to talk about. Be honest, and say we don't know why certain things happen, but we're here to support each other.
"For some younger children, loss is easier to accept when you tell them that death is part of the natural circle of life," explains Venta. "Meanwhile, teens have a sense of reality. They immediately understand that they will miss their loved one."
All emotions are valid. You can help your kids identify what they are feeling and work through it.
What are signs of grief in a child?
When a loved one dies, children may show a wide variety of emotions – initially and in the future. Every child will process and show grief differently. Some children won't show any reactions at all. Others may show signs of grief, such as:
- Fear (that someone else close to them will die)
- Anger or desire to blame someone
- Deep sadness (because they miss their loved one, and they realize the important people in their life will not live forever)
"No matter what your child's reaction is, it's important to talk about it," explains Venta. "All emotions are valid. You can help your kids identify what they are feeling and work through it."
Are there stages of grief in children?
You might hear people talk about certain stages of grief, such as shock, sadness, anger and acceptance. However, Venta says it's perfectly natural for children (and adults) to experience emotions in different orders – and nothing is wrong with that. Anniversaries and holidays might rekindle those feelings again, even after they've learned to cope with their loss.
How can I help my child process grief?
To help children process grief, it's important to let them feel their emotions. Allow your child to be upset. Crying allows them to release their emotions. And it's OK for you to cry, too.
Validate how your child feels and reassure them that you are there for them. Simply listening can be a big help to children. You can also try certain activities or seek out additional support to help your child process grief.
Try grief activities for kids
To help children work through their grief and memorialize their loved one, you can do certain activities together as a family – or your child can do them alone.
- Set up a picture of your loved one in a designated area of the house.
- Make a box in which your child can collect photos and memorabilia from times spent together.
- Start a scrapbook or photo album.
- Draw pictures or make collages that spark memories of your loved one.
- Write a letter to the person, saying things you wish you could tell them in person.
- Make a special jar where your kids can place notes, asking questions they didn't have a chance to ask before their loved one's death.
"These activities help children work through their feelings. Sometimes children can't articulate or don't want to talk about death. If you see they are writing, making an album or have a box of special things, you'll know they are coping with their grief and not putting it aside or pretending it did not happen," explains Venta. "You'll notice good openings for conversation during these activities, too."
Read grief books for kids
You can find a wide array of books, audiobooks, podcasts and movies to help children with grief, loss and trauma. Research options to make sure they are a good fit for your child's age and development.
Some recommended grief books include:
- The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
- Badger's Parting Gifts by Susan Varley
- A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret Holmes
- The Tenth Good Thing about Barney by Judith Viorst
- Olive's Ocean by Kevin Henkes
- Miracle's Boys by Jacqueline Woodson
Some recommended movies about grief or emotions include:
- Inside Out
- Big Hero 6
Connect with your children's school
Returning to a regular routine is an important step in the grieving process, but your kids might need a little extra support. Notify their teachers – so they'll understand if your child experiences a surge of grief at school. Your child may need extra tutoring or extra time to complete assignments.
Also, be aware that your children's friends may not even acknowledge the death at first. You can explain that sometimes people find it hard to talk about death, maybe because they haven't experienced it yet or don't know how.
Consider grief support groups
Support groups bring together families who've experienced a death.
"Usually, the children gather in groups according to their age. They talk, read books together or do crafts and other activities," explains Venta. "Support groups help kids realize they're not the only people their age who've lost someone."
Grief support groups around Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex include:
- Journey of Hope Grief Support Center in Plano, TX
- Lighthouse for New Hope in Mesquite, TX
- The WARM Place Grief Support Center for Children in Ft. Worth, TX
If your family is spiritual or attends a certain church, you can contact a local pastor for ideas about helping your children process grief.
Grief counseling for children
Understand that processing the death of a loved one takes time. It helps to console your child, work on the memorial activities and attend support groups. Some kids may benefit from grief counseling, too.
"If time has passed and your child still finds it difficult to function in life – seems very angry, depressed or can't get through the day successfully – you might consider therapy or grief counseling," says Venta.
To find grief counseling for children, ask your pediatrician for recommendations.
Venta warns that if your child talks about wanting to die or is hurting themself, go to the emergency room or call a suicide crisis line such as 214-828-1000 or 1-800-273-8255.
Helping children with grief in the years ahead
As the days and months go by, children need to know you're willing to talk about your loved one. Continue to check in and ask how your child is feeling.
"Hopefully, after a while, you can celebrate your loved one's life," says Venta. "Through your tears, you can talk about the good times and smile and laugh when you think about this person who meant so much to you."
If you feel your child is having difficulty coping with feelings of sadness, anxiety or depression, our team of psychologists and psychiatrists at Children's Health can help. Learn more about programs we offer to support mental, emotional and behavioral health.