Grief In Children – Help the Kids Find Their Way

As we go through the process of grief, let’s not forget the children. Grief in children is often forgotten, but oh… so important to acknowledge!

Girl sitting in bed drawing and brother watching over her shoulder


Grief In Children

Funeral drawing by a child, saying: I love you forever mommy “As great scientists have said and as all children know, it is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception, and compassion, and hope.” ~ Ursula K. LeGuin

So where are the kids? Probably alone in their bedrooms, crying. We have given you lots of resources here on our website to help you cope with grief (check the 7 stages of grief)… so now we turn our attention to the children. Have you helped them deal with the tragedy?

Kids are often the “forgotten mourners” in a household stricken by a tragic death. Why? Here are a few possible reasons:

  • Their needs are honestly overlooked in the emotional turmoil
  • Adults think that by not confronting the issue head-on, they somehow shield children from the pain (does not work)
  • Many adults think children don’t understand death and therefore aren’t affected deeply by it. They don’t know how to deal with it, so they just leave the kids alone

A little effort, sensitivity, and honesty on your part will go a long way towards drawing your children out and helping them to process their own grief in a healthy and successful way.

This section contains a wealth of information to help you help your grieving children:

  • Pointers to help your child through a healthy bereavement
  • How to talk to children about the loss
  • Should they go to the funeral?
  • Comfort items that might help
  • Sympathy gifts especially for children
  • Age-specific guidelines for grieving children
  • Therapeutic Exercises and Commemorations
  • Outside resources for bereaved children (support groups, forums, and books)
  • When to seek professional help for your child (normal symptoms and warning signs)

If you know of a child who has lost a parent, you may want to visit this wonderful website. It is a charitable organization that provides free direct services for children grieving the death of a parent.

They sponsor the “Tradition Program” in which they finance special traditions the family used to observe while the parent was alive. This helps the children maintain an emotional bond with their deceased parent.

Helping Your Child Grieve

Grief is a normal and natural reaction to loss. It is not a disease, personality disorder, or behavioral abnormality. It is appropriate for children to be sad and experience pain and even extreme distress after a loss. DO NOT tell your child not to feel bad. And DO NOT tell him to stop crying. Would you tell a grieving adult “don’t feel bad” or “stop crying”? No! Well, children deserve the same respect and kindness.

Although as a parent, you love your child and don’t want them to feel bad, this is something you cannot and should not prevent. It’s as important for children to feel the same full constellation of painful emotions and experience grief in all it’s stages, as for an adult. If you just step back and realize that “feeling bad” is a normal reaction to a tragic loss, then you can see how it would be better for your child to feel bad (normal) about it.

Don’t try to make children feel better by “keeping them busy”, either. As with adults, all this does is postpone or bury griefwork that needs to be done. Children need very much to feel all the pain and sorrow that a grievous loss merits.

Never “smooth over” a child’s grief. Listen to them. Let them vent and cry all they want and need to. Don’t send them to their room or find an activity to keep them busy in an attempt to shield them from the pain.

Encourage a child to express his painful emotions and sadness freely. Keeping it all inside and unexpressed prevents him from completing his mourning and can create serious emotional problems later in life. As painful as it may be for you to watch, your child must learn how to cope with loss and tragedy. Don’t rob him of this valuable learning experience.

Don’t Let Kids Grieve Alone

Don’t let your children grieve alone. Include them in the storytelling and reminisces about the lost one. Encourage them to tell stories about times they spent with their loved one, both good times and bad. Let them contribute ideas for the memorial service, and even take part in the ceremony if possible. It makes them feel important and useful during this overwhelming time. Let them see the adults cry and grieve so they will know that it is okay for them, too.

Contrary to what you might think, children are not harmed by seeing their parents or other adults cry and lose a little control during bereavement. It may upset them initially, but in the long run, it is healthy for them to see their elders react normally in times of grief. Just reassure them later that no matter how sad you are, you will still love and take care of them.

Sharing your grief with your children can be an opportunity to create a connecting bridge to them. Shutting them out can do the opposite, create a gulf between you.

It’s a good thing to mourn and cry in front of your child, within reason. But don’t add to his burden by turning him into your personal confidante, or overwhelm him with your own grief. Turn to another adult or support group if you need help.

Do not expect a child to act like an adult (“You need to be the man of the house now, and take care of your mother”). Now how could telling a child something like that possibly help him deal with his own father’s death?

What to Say to Kids About the Loss

If you tell a 4-year old that "Grandma went to sleep and didn't wake up", she may spend many terrifying and sleepless nights, afraid she might experience the same fate.

There are effective ways to help your child talk about the lost loved one and express his grief over it. If you ask him directly “How do you feel about Grandpa dying?” or ” Do you feel sad that your brother died?” you will likely receive the following answer: “I’m okay”.

A better approach is for you, the adult, to “go first”. Talk openly and honestly about your lost one, express your sadness and pain. You may say something like: “Boy, I sure am sad that Grandma died. I will miss her funny jokes, won’t you?” You send the child the message that it is okay to feel bad, and okay to talk about it. He’ll feel safe to speak from the heart.

If you go first, he will be much more likely to join in and express his own emotions. And it is quite alright and helpful for you to hug and cry right along with your child. Do NOT be afraid to cry in front of your kids. “Being strong for the children” is total nonsense and sends all the wrong messages to them about healthy bereavement.

Honesty is Best For Bereaved Children

It is important that you answer all of a child’s questions about death – honestly. You don’t have to provide every gory detail of what happened to a body during a motorcycle accident. But you do need to tell them in a simple manner what happened. They need this information in order to process this new aspect of life and death in their world. Their imagination often provides them with images that are much more scary or gruesome than the truth.

As an example of the motorcycle accident, you could say, “His motorcycle was hit by a car, and he was thrown off and hit his head on a tree. He hit it so hard that it killed him”. It is appropriate and important to use the words “died” “death” or “killed”, no matter what age the child is.

If you tell a 4-year old that “Grandma went to sleep and didn’t wake up”, she may spend many terrifying and sleepless nights, afraid she might experience the same fate. Young children take what you say very literally, and aren’t sophisticated enough to understand euphemisms like “passed on” or “no longer with us”, “went to sleep”, or “God took her”.  It is very important that you literally say the person has DIED.

It is just as important to continue using the deceased person’s name in your home. Do NOT confuse the child by making the person’s name taboo. Let it be okay to continue reminiscing about the good and bad times spent with the lost loved one. Talking openly about the deceased is healthy and healing.

Encourage your child to ask any questions he may have about death. If you listen carefully, he or she will let you know how simple or detailed your answer needs to be. They may be very curious about what happens to a body after a person dies. They may ask if she is cold, or hungry. Or, how does he go to the bathroom in that casket?

Answer honestly: that once a person is dead, their heart and mind and body no longer works. They no longer breathe or talk or walk or move. Their body is no longer warm but cold to the touch.

You can also interject what you wish your child to know about your beliefs regarding the spiritual hereafter. But please make the distinction that the spirit is no longer inside the body, that the spirit leaves the body behind to “go to heaven”. If you simply tell them, “John went to heaven”, they will literally believe that that cold body went up to the heavens. You must also make clear to the child that he cannot go with them or visit; that Grandpa has to go to heaven alone.

Sometimes, in an effort to comfort children, an adult may tell a child how wonderful heaven is and how the dead person is “much better off with the angels”. Now think about this from a child’s point of view. She may:

  • Be mad at God for “taking” her baby brother
  • Want to die too because death sounds glamorous or heaven sounds irresistible
  • Live in terror that angels or God may snatch her away, too

If a person has committed suicide, and the child is old enough to understand what that means, do not hide the truth from them. Honesty is always the best policy when it comes to a stigmatic death, like suicide, AIDS, or drugs. Provide the facts at a level appropriate to their age. Otherwise, they will get the truth later from someone else and may resent your dishonesty. It also leaves them alone to grapple with a new complication of their grief.

In the case of suicide or a drug abuse death, be sure to explain that the reason the death occurred was due to the deceased’s mental illness. Tell them that self-destructive habits or acts are never glamorous or cool, or acceptable. Tell them that the lost one will never have a second chance at a happy life, ever. This is particularly important for teens and young adults, who might romanticize the suicide of a peer.

These issues may be hard for you to explain to a child, especially if you are grieving, too. But it is important to satisfy the child’s curiosity about death in an honest and accurate manner. And tell them they can come back to you with any other questions that might come up. Be the “safe person” your child can come to with serious questions about “unmentionables”.

Should They Go To the Funeral?

If he or she is old enough to understand that the person has died, and would be reasonably quiet (crying infants don’t belong), then by all means, give them the option of going if they want to. But do not force them if they don’t want to go.

Why let them go? A funeral serves a purpose for adults and children during the bereavement process. It helps to affirm in a concrete way that yes, my loved one is actually dead and going to be buried. It provides affirmation of the death, some amount of closure, and also provides much-needed support from family and friends during a needy time in your life.

A funeral service exposes children, perhaps for the first time, to the process and ritual of death, helps them understand the finality of death, and shows them that it is okay to feel bad about it and mourn openly, as others are doing. In shielding a child from the funeral process, you rob them of an important life-lesson to be learned.

That being said, make sure to prepare the child by explaining to them what will happen and what they will see, and that people may be crying. If there is an open casket, they need to be told what the body will look like, and given the choice of whether or not they want to view it. The funeral experience could be a traumatic thing for them if they’re not thoroughly prepared beforehand.

Comfort Items That Might Help

Below we offer a small selection of quality items that might provide soothing comfort or emotional support for your grieving children. 

Grief blankets – Your child will never grieve alone with one of these comforting blankets. Just explain to them that their “guardian angel” is always there with him when he snuggles in his blanket.

Book: “Tear Soup”by Pat Schweibert. Tear Soup is one of the best and most popular grief resources out there. Written in a children’s book format – with simply worded concepts, wonderfully colored pictures, and a creative idea – it gives as much to adults as grieving children of any age. A must-read.

Book: “Sad Isn’t Bad: A Good-Grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing With Loss, by Michaelene Mundy. A beautiful book to help explain the concepts of death and grief to young children.  A unique approach presented in a very forthright manner yet in language children easily understand.

More resources for families with grieving children

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