Helping a Grieving Child in the Face of Loss

It is always difficult when a loved one dies. While you are probably facing grief yourself and trying to manage your emotions, the situation can be made more demanding if you also have a child who is mourning. Of course, this can be a challenging situation—especially if you are not quite sure how to help your son or daughter cope with the loss. Realize that a child’s perception of death depends on many factors, including their age, life experiences, and personality. However, there are a few things to remember no matter the situation in order to help your child.

Explaining Death to a Child

There are always tough conversations that a parent has to have with a child—and explaining death is one of them. A child does have the capacity to understand death, so it’s best to be upfront and honest about this reality. As you begin this conversation, realize that your child is going to have questions—and that you might not have all the answers. This is okay. By creating an atmosphere of comfort and openness, you will send a message to your child that there isn’t a right or a wrong way to feel about this situation. Here are some points that you should take into account when you initiate this conversation with your son or daughter:

  • Until a child is aged five or six, they tend to have a very literal view of the world. Therefore, work to explain death in the most basic way. If your deceased loved one was old or ill, explain to the child that their body no longer worked correctly and that the doctors weren’t able to fix it. Or, if your loved one passed unexpectedly, such as in an accident, explain that this person’s body stopped working because of this sad event. Realize too that helping a child understand the terms “dying” or “death” is probably going to be necessary; one of the easiest ways to do this is by saying that those words mean that one’s body stopped working.
  • Expect a young child to not understand the finality of death—and that it simply is a part of life. Even after a conversation about death, your child may continue to ask where your loved one is or when they might be coming back. Don’t feel frustrated, no matter how much your own grief is exacerbated by this. Calmly and continually reiterate that the person has died and is unable to come back.
  • Avoid using euphemisms and don’t tell a child that someone “went away” or “went to sleep.” Another thing to avoid: Telling your child that your family “lost” someone. As I noted, a young child thinks very literally and these types of phrases have the ability to spark fear in a child—making them afraid to go to sleep or fearful when someone goes away or leaves on a business trip or vacation.
  • Also take into account that a child’s questions can seem much deeper than what is actually intended. For example, if a five year old asks where someone who died is right now, they probably are not asking for an explanation of the afterlife or whatever belief system your family holds. Rather, this child might be curious to know if the person who died is now in the cemetery. Always try to lead with the simplest answer to a question and let the child process this and ask follow up questions should they so wish.
  • Children between the ages of six and ten typically have the ability to understand the finality of death, even if they do not yet recognize that it will happen to every living thing someday. Oftentimes, children in this age group give death a personification of sorts—think of the “boogeyman” if you will. They might also believe that if they behave themselves or do something that is asked of them by an individual, that the person won’t die, i.e. “If I listen to Grandma, and be a good boy, she won’t die.” Realize that this is a normal response, but you should talk to them about this in order to improve their understanding. Ultimately, a child can experience guilt if someone does pass away after making this type of deal with themselves.

Teens Behave Differently

Every parent knows that the teenaged years can be difficult—even more so when a teen is dealing with loss. Some of the most pertinent questions that your teenager might be dealing with probably involve mortality and vulnerability. The best way to empathize with a teenager who is grieving is to agree that a situation is sad or frightening, while also reminding them about how to stay safe and healthy and make good choices in life. Remember, no matter what emotions your teen is facing, it’s best to encourage them to express themselves and share the grief with you. Internalizing these feelings is not healthy and could ultimately lead to bigger mental and physical health issues.

Mary Ellen Wasielewski