For adults, losing a loved one is disorienting and difficult to accept. But for children, who are still experiencing so many new life lessons, it’s far more so, affecting their sense of security.
It may be hard for children to understand how someone is physically present one day and gone the next, never to return. To prevent confusion, it is best not to use euphemisms such as “he’s gone to sleep” about someone who has died. Be gentle but honest, without offering details that will be upsetting or more than a child can comprehend.
In helping a child come to terms with loss and death, you’re teaching them a lifelong coping skill.
Like all of us, children grieve differently, depending on their age, development level, and personality. It is natural that they will be sad and anxious, especially if they see parents and other adults around them grieving too.
Some ways a child may react to grief and loss:
- Veering from one emotion to another – crying, then seeming indifferent
- Reverting to younger or uncharacteristic behavior, such as thumb-sucking or baby talk
- Inability to concentrate or focus
- Withdrawal from school and other activities
- Showing frustration, guilt, irritability, anger, or fear
- Changes in eating and sleeping patterns, having nightmares
- Complaints of physical pain, such as stomachache
- Fixation on death and the person who died
- Worrying about parents or other adults
Should children attend funerals?
“As soon as children are able to sit still or react appropriately at family events, they should be given a choice about funerals,” says Kenneth Doka, Ph.D., author of Grief is a Journey. Children appreciate being included and being shown their opinions matter; this can avoid regret or resentment later, especially if the deceased is someone who was close to the child.
Attending a funeral is likely to be a long-lasting memory for a child, and may be an important part of understanding and processing the death. If the child is prone to anxiety, needs a lot of reassurance, or is easily upset by changes, or if the service will be longer than the child can be expected to sit, the best course of action may be not to give them the option to attend, so the loss isn’t more distressing.
When asking a child whether they want to attend a funeral, explain in age-appropriate language what they can expect, and what the experience may be like. Tell them people may behave differently than usual; they may cry and express sadness because they miss the person who has died. Since funerals are typically a somber time, explain they may have to sit quietly, and won’t be able to get up and play. Let them know if the casket will be open, as this could be traumatic for a child.
If the child chooses not to attend, offer an alternative, such as spending time with a trusted friend or relative.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ ”
– Mr. Rogers
How to help a grieving child:
- It’s best if someone close to the child tells them about the death, and does so as soon as possible, so the child doesn’t inadvertently hear from another source, which could be a shock.
- Use direct language in explaining what has happened, without going into too much detail or trying to diminish what has happened. Follow the child’s lead; if they ask questions, answer them as simply and honestly as possible. Too much information can be overwhelming.
- Encourage the child to express their feelings about what has happened and about the person who has died, without pressuring them. Explain that it’s okay to feel sad and upset, or to not be sure what these feelings mean, and you are there for anything they want to talk about and questions they have. Help the child put their feelings into words, if they’re struggling, and listen without judgment.
- Be honest about your feelings. It may be confusing and scary for a child to see parents and other adults grieving, but if you do your best to explain, it may help them understand their own sense of grief and loss too.
- Tell teachers, counselors, coaches, and other caregivers in the child’s life about the death so they will be aware and sensitive to changes in behavior, and can watch for signs that the child needs extra help or attention.
- Explain any changes that may occur because of this loss. If the person who died was a grandparent or relative who cared for the child or picked them up from school, reassure them that they will be taken care of, and by whom, if possible.
- Regardless of whether the child attends the funeral or service, it may be helpful to ask the child if they would like to have a personal memorial to honor the person who died and say goodbye in their own way.
- Provide comfort to the child by explaining that although this is an upsetting and painful time, things are still okay, they are safe, and they will feel better again.
- Give the child time to recover from the loss, and explain that healing does not mean forgetting about the person who has died. Have ongoing conversations about how the child is feeling, and give them choices about spending time alone or with family and friends.
- Gently help the child return to a normal routine in a reasonable amount of time. Children often feel most comfortable and secure when they know what to expect. You can help the process by planning activities together, such as cooking or drawing.
The Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families offers activities for younger children and teenagers to help sort out feelings of grief and loss.
Coping with a traumatic death
The death of a parent or sibling will be much more difficult and confusing for a child, especially since the surviving parent may be too overcome with grief to offer comfort or support. If a parent has died, reassure the child that they will continue to be loved and cared for. In the case of a sibling’s death, because it’s unusual for a young person to die, the child may have questions or fears about their own safety. Explain to them that they are not in danger, and the adult caregivers in their lives are looking out for them, even when grieving.
Acknowledge what a difficult time this is for you, and let the child know you are likely to feel this grief for a long time, though they may experience grief differently. Don’t hesitate to bring in other caregivers, including relatives and friends, to support the child. Professional counseling may be a good idea, regardless of the child’s age.
If the death is due to suicide, a drug overdose, or violence, be honest without sharing too many troubling details. It will be much more confusing if an explanation for the death is withheld.
In the case of a tragic event, such as a natural disaster or violence, Donna Schuurman, Ed.D, F.T., of the Dougy Center, advises that you take care not to project your fears onto a child, as they tend to take their cues from how adults behave and react.
“Identifying with the senselessness and randomness makes us all feel more vulnerable. But we should remember that children don’t always see things the same way that adults do. They need to see that we care, that we feel terrible about this tragedy, and that we will do everything we can to keep them safe,” Schuurman says. “It’s okay to show emotion. We can model for children that feeling sad, scared, and upset is normal after tragedies. But we don’t want to overwhelm them with our emotions. Make sure you also model taking care of yourself.”
Schuurman says it’s important to be an example of truth-telling and build trust with a child by letting them hear even difficult things from you directly. Although you can’t shield a child from what has happened, try to limit their exposure to repeated images and news that are graphic, emotional, or frightening. Reassure them that such events are rare, and you will do everything in your power to keep them safe.
If you are struggling with grief, subscribe to our free online bereavement program, 12 Weeks of Peace.
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