Helping children understand grief: A parent’s guide

Losing a loved one is painful at any age. But grief can be especially confusing and frightening for children who lack the life experience and perspective to make sense of it. As a parent, you play a crucial role in guiding your children through the grieving process. With compassion and open communication, you can help them understand and express their grief
By illume Editorial Team
Last updated: Oct 25, 2023
3 min read
Grief Works

Helping Kids Cope with Loss

Children grieve just as deeply as adults, but often show it differently. Some reactions you may see:

  • Regression – Reverting to outgrown behaviors like thumb-sucking or bedwetting
  • Acting out – Misbehaving at home or school
  • Physical complaints – Stomachaches, headaches, fatigue
  • Clinginess and separation anxiety
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities
  • Shock and disbelief – Asking the same questions repeatedly
  • Guilt – Thinking they caused the death somehow

These are normal responses as kids struggle to cope with the painful emotions of grief. With your guidance, they can move through the grief process in a way that avoids lasting trauma.

Explaining Death to Children

Use simple, direct language appropriate for their age when explaining death. For younger kids, explain that the person’s body stopped working and can’t wake up again. Avoid euphemisms like “passed away” or “lost” which can confuse them. Affirm that they did nothing to cause the death. Answer questions honestly and clearly. If you don’t know the answer to something, it’s okay to say so.

Young children may need repeated explanations as they work to grasp the permanence of death. Be patient and allow them to express their feelings. Drawing pictures or playing with toys related to the person who died often helps kids open up. Maintaining routines also provides comfort during this difficult transition.

For older children, you can explain death in more detail. Discuss how the person’s organs shut down or describe whatever medical cause led to their passing. Ask the child what death means to them and have an open discussion to clear up any misconceptions.

Encouraging Emotional Expression

Allow kids to express their grief naturally. Some healthy ways to cope include:

  • Attending memorial services to say goodbye
  • Looking at photo albums and reminiscing
  • Making cards, drawings or crafts in memory of the deceased
  • Planting flowers or trees in honor of the loved one
  • Lighting candles or saying prayers
  • Visiting the gravesite or special shared places

Avoid statements that minimize their feelings like “don’t cry” or “be strong.” Crying and expressing sadness are healthy outlets. If emotions become too intense, calmly redirect to another activity or comforting hug.

Some children may shelter their feelings to avoid upsetting others. Gently encourage them to open up through play, art, or writing. However, don’t force it. Offer opportunities to talk, then follow their lead.

Watching for Issues at School

Grieving children may act out or withdraw from peers at school. Inform teachers and caregivers about the loss so they can provide additional support. If you notice sudden changes in grades, behavior, or relationships, consult with a school counselor. Maintain communication to ensure your child is coping well academically and socially.

When to Seek Professional Help

Most kids gradually adjust to the loss with time and family support. However, contact a doctor or mental health professional if you observe:

  • Refusal to accept the death after 6-8 months
  • Self-destructive behaviors
  • Ongoing trouble sleeping and eating
  • Severe depression, isolation or guilt
  • Talk of suicide
  • Violent outbursts or self-harm

Professional counseling or support groups can prevent more serious issues from developing. Despite your best efforts, some children struggle profoundly with grief. Seek outside help if your usual parenting strategies don’t console them.

Healing Takes Time

The grief process is highly individual for kids. There is no “correct” timetable. Have patience and let them mourn at their own pace. Express your own grief honestly so they see modeling of healing behaviors. Maintain open communication and offer a consistent, caring routine amidst the disruption.

The loss of a loved one alters a child’s world forever. With compassion and support, you can guide them through grief and eventual healing. They will learn coping strategies to apply after future losses as well. Though it may not seem like it now, your child will emerge stronger having worked through this painful experience with your help