Helping Children Through Grief

By Helen Fitzgerald, CT

• As soon as possible after the death, set time aside to talk to your child.

• Give your child the facts in a simple manner -- be careful not to go into too much detail. Your child will ask more questions as they come up in his/her mind.

• If you can't answer your child’s questions, it's okay to say, "I don't know how to answer that, but perhaps we can find someone to help us."

• Use the correct language - say the word "dead" etc. Do not use phrases such as: "He's sleeping," or "God took her," or "He went away," etc.

• Ask your child questions to better understand what he or she may be thinking or feeling. "What are you feeling?" "What have you heard from your friends?" "What do you think happened?" etc.

• Explain your feelings to your child, especially if you are crying. Give children permission to cry. We are their role models and it's appropriate for children to see our sadness and for us to share our feelings with them.

• Use the given name of the deceased when speaking of him or her.

• Understand the age and level of comprehension of your child. Speak to that level.

• Talk about feelings, such as: sad, angry, feeling responsible, scared, tearful, depressed, worried, etc.

• Read an age-appropriate book on childhood grief so you have a better understanding of what your child may be experiencing. (Click on the Books tab of the Grief at School menu for suggested resources.)

• Read an age-appropriate book on death to your child. Take time to discuss what you have read and relate it to what is happening to you. (Click on the Books tab of the Grief at School menu for suggested resources.)

• Talk about the viewing and funeral. Explain what happens at these events and find out if your child wants to attend.

• Think about ways your child can say "goodbye" to the person who has died.

• Talk to your child about God, if appropriate, and what happens to people after they die.

• Invite your child to come back to you if he or she has more questions or has heard rumors -- tell your child you will help get the correct information.

• Talk about memories, good ones and ones not so good.

• Watch out for "bad dreams." Are they occurring often? Talk about the dreams.

• Watch for behavioral changes in your child both at home or at school.

• Friends, family, schoolmates, etc, frequently find solace and comfort in doing something in the name of the person who died - a memorial.

• You might see some of the following behavior:
- Tearfulness
- Irritability
- Clinging to you
- Whining
- Somatic complaints
- Temporary dip in grades
- More pronounced fears, e.g, of dying or of you dying, of the dark, etc.
- Regression in behavior
- Aggressive behavior

These are normal emotions. If, however, you ever feel the reactions are more extreme or lasting longer than you think they should be, never hesitate to consult a professional.

• Offer your child loving, touching support.

The Helping Children Through Grief article was originally published on the American Hospice Foundation website. © 2004 American Hospice Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

Related articles:
How Can We Respond to the Grief of Children?
Children and Funerals
When a Teenager Dies
Helping Children Cope with a Parent's Death
Who Will Care for My Children If Something Happens to Me?

Also by Helen Fitzgerald:
After a Tragedy: What Kids Can Do
The Grieving Teen
Writing a Condolence Note to a Grieving Child or Adolescent
Military Kids: Responding to Their Grief
The Grief of Grandparents

Helen Fitzgerald is a Certified Thanatologist, author and lecturer. Her books include The Grieving Child: A Parents' Guide, The Mourning Handbook and The Grieving Teen. She has appeared on the CBS Morning Show and the NBC Today Show and was previously the director of training for the American Hospice Foundation.



Image credit: Mrinkk/StockXchng

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Comment by D C K on March 3, 2014 at 11:54am

How distressing it is for a young child to face the reality of death! Of course, faced with the loss of a loved one, you may be struggling to cope with your own emotions; you may feel anguished and preoccupied. However, you must not forget that your child needs your support.

Helping your child with grief can be a very difficult thing to bear but there is help and comfort for all of us.  First and foremost, it may be wise to explain the facts to your children, according to their level of understanding. This is challenging, since children may differ greatly in their ability to comprehend what is happening.

When trying to explain death to a child, many parents have found that children understand simple, direct words more readily than they do abstract concepts or euphemisms.  Researchers recommend that you encourage your child to ask questions and talk about his concerns. Frequent conversations may help you to clear up misunderstandings and could reveal other ways to assist your child.

During a period of mourning, your child will look to you for direction, support, and answers.  Many people have found the Bible to be a reliable source of comfort and hope. It provides definitive information on the origin of death, the condition of the dead, and the hope for the dead. The plain truth that “the dead know nothing at all” should help your child to realize that his deceased loved one is not suffering. (Ecclesiastes 9:5) Moreover, in the Bible, God extends the hope that we will see our dead loved ones again on a paradise earth.—John 5:28, 29.

By turning to the Holy Scriptures, you can help your child to learn that the Bible provides reliable guidance and comfort in every distressing situation. At the same time, your child will observe that you as a parent depend on God’s Word for direction on important matters in life.

Until the time when Jehovah God brings an end to sickness and death, children will from time to time be confronted by the tragedy of death. (Isaiah 25:8) However, with proper reassurance and support, children can be helped to cope successfully with the loss of a loved one.

I hope that this has helped the families that are struggling and that they will be able to find some comfort in this information.  If you would like more information, please feel free to visit www.jw.org.

Comment by Vicki on August 22, 2011 at 3:44am

Our grandson Nathan was almost 2 when his mother Rachel died very suddenly from a heart attack. We took him home with us that night and he's been here ever since (he's now 8). Our son, his dad gets him every chance he can but couldn't have him full time with the job he has. My husband and I are so thankful that we're in good health and have been blessed to have Nathan with us.

   At first Nathan would cry for his mama but how do you explain to a baby why the most imporant person in his world is not there? I talked to a counselor at Focus on the Family and he said to give Nathan a small picture of Rachel in a soft frame. That baby carried that picture around with him, staring at it, kissing her picture, and even tried to hug that little photo. It was so hear tbreaking. He went through the stages of screaming if we left the room, all the symptoms of fear of being left. When he was a little older, we talked to him about his mama being in Heaven. He still talks about her almost every day and we visit her grave when we can (they didn't live near us). I regret that Rachel's parents haven't had much contact with him but I guess they do the best they can. We want him to keep a connection to her family for his sake. Our son hasn't remarried yet and although I want what's best for Nathan, I can barely think about our little boy moving out.

   It was hard changing from a grandma who spoils him to a mama who wants to raise him in all the ways that are important. But he's the love of our lives and we're truly blessed to have him with us.

   My advice if you have a child who is grieving is to talk about the deceased one and let the child know they can always ask you anything. When they're ready, show them pictures and videos to help the child remember. Most of all, guide them into faith in a loving heavenly Father who knows their sorrow and loves them.

Comment by KK on December 28, 2010 at 8:49am
Also helpful could be if a parent believes the Bible's promise of a resurrection. They can use this oportunity to explain that Jehovah God remembers the departed one and can bring him back to life in the future earthly Paradise as promised at Luke 23:43 "And he said to him: “Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise.”
Comment by Elaine Banks Phillips on June 2, 2009 at 4:25pm
You are so right,my son was killed in a fatal car accident in 2006. I just learned that my 5yr old grandson who was 2yrs old than and 5 yrs old now was still waiting on his dad to return home from work. This was a shock to me. Kory would say I know my dad is in heaven. I really don't know if he understands where heaven is. My best friend was visiting my home one day last week and mentioned that Kory looks like his mom and dad. I stated yes,he has his mom eyes and nose but Kris his dad head. It was like a day of flash back when Kris oldest son was 5yrs old at the time of his dad death and his mom only told him that his dad had passed. Not that your dad is dead or was killed. This child wanted to know when was his dad coming home from work because thought that a party was going on when the family members was gathering at his home after the accident. This had to be explained to them the only way I knew how. This was one of the hardest monemts of my life to let my two grandsons know that their dad was dead and would not being coming home anymore. You have to be straight with kids now they do know what dead means,not passed. I told each grandson that their dad name was on the Gods roll and that everyone name is on this roll and that we all have to answer to the roll call one day. This is not our choice but Gods Choice. They should live right,serve God and be good so that one day they could see their dad again. If there is any thing else that I can talk to them about please help me. You know I didnot cry a tear at my sons funeral just to hold up for these two boys,my daughter who was 5 months pregnant and she and Kris was so close and my oldest son. Kris was a Firefighter and Richard a EMT both worked for the City of New Orleans on calls together. So somebody had to be strong.I am wondering if this is why I am having so much pain and heartaches and if this is why I had a brain aneuurysum in 2007. Any way please help me in any way possible to help my grandson to go on without their dad. Kris Jr. he is angry with the world him. He has such an attitude,it is really bad. He gets angry when he see the other cousin with their dads together. He tells me I miss my dad so much. Kris was a DAD to his kids,when Kris was off from work when you see Kris you see Kris Jr,Kory and Cinnamon the dog together. You this dog really cried the day Kris was killed. Tears actually came from this dog eyes. But Please help me with my grandsons. I hope this information will help someone along the way.

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