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How to Help a Grieving Child

When someone dies, parents and family members are usually concerned over the child's well being and mental health. Death and grief affect children differently, especially when considering the developmental age of your child. They can go from being happy to crying and fearful in a matter of minutes. Here are some ideas on how to best help a child who is grieving and what to look for when it comes to grief in children.

How to tell a child about the death of a parent

Speaking to a child about death can be difficult, especially if they aren't at a developmental age where they can understand the meaning behind a permanent death. Here are some helpful strategies to use when telling a child about a death -- these strategies can be used when speaking to a child about the death of a parent, grandparent, or other person in their life.

  • Use simple, clear, and direct language that they will be able to understand.
  • Break the news in a distraction-free and safe area where they can be supported and focus on what's being said.
  • Tell the child about the death as soon as possible.
  • Remember that it's okay for you to show emotions when speaking about the death. If you're feeling emotional, explain the emotions to them and let them know that it's okay for them to feel many different emotions, even happiness, though that may feel confusing for them.
  • They will likely have many questions -- try to keep your responses and explanations clear, concise, and direct.
  • Explain what steps will take place in the next few weeks, and let them know what to expect from friends and family members who hear of the loss.
  • Explain what will happen with them, who will take care of them, whether there will be changes in their living arrangements and what will stay the same. Be sure to explain that they're safe, supported, and will be taken care of.
  • If the child is younger, expect to have to repeat the information and concepts. Try to remain calm when doing so and do not take their difficulty in comprehension as them being inattentive.
  • If you don't know the answer to a question they have, let them know that you don't have the answer but will find out and let them know.

Explaining a death to a child will often require patience and time, you'll most likely need to repeat yourself a few times or will need to explain the concept of death in a way that they can comprehend. Due to this, it's advised that you approach this in an emotionally stable state so that they have the best chance at understanding the news being given to them. Having someone else next to you when explaining this to help can be useful, especially if you aren't sure if you can get through the explanation without difficulty.

Signs of grief in a child

Grief in children is normal after they've lost someone. Typical signs to look for when it comes to children and grief include:

  • An extended loss of interest in events and daily activities
  • "Emotional regression," or the child returning to behaviors they exhibited at a younger age for an extended period of time
  • Imitating the person who passed away
  • Withdrawing from school, activities, and friends
  • Increased irritability and irritation
  • Refusal to go to school or a drop in academic performance

For more a more detailed overview of signs of grief in children, read through The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry's post on grief and children.

Children's books about death and loss

Using books as a way to explain a death to a child can be helpful as it takes the focus off of you having to explain everything. It can also help a child feel more comfortable asking questions about the book later on. Here are some children's books about death and loss that may be helpful when explaining a death to a child:

"The Invisible String" by Patrice Karst
"I'll Always Love You" by Hans Wilhelm
"The Dragonfly Pool" by Eva Ibbotson
"When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death" by Laurie Krasny Brown
"Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children" by Bryan Mellonie

If you're looking for children's books about the death of a parent specifically, here are some titles worth looking into:

"No Matter What" by Debi Gliori
"The Goodbye Book" by Todd Parr
"Boats for Papa" by Jessixa Bagley
"My Father's Words" by Patricia MacLachlan
"The Garden of Hope" by Isabell Otter and Katie Rewse

How does the death of a parent affect a child?

Though a child may have a strong support system and other family members to help them after losing a parent, losing a parent is a traumatic experience for most children. If the parent is loss during a child's formative years, they're at a higher risk for certain negative outcomes, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress symptoms
  • Difficulty in school
  • Low self-esteem
  • Other risky behaviors

If you're feeling overwhelmed, it can help to look for outside resources to give you more confidence when speaking about this difficult topic with a child.

The effects of death on children's development are significant, especially if they aren't supported after losing a parent. In addition to these side effects, many family systems are burdened after the loss of a parent. The surviving parent is left to shoulder the financial responsibility of the family and the emotional and practical responsibilities of caring for children that have also lost someone. Being aware of this added stress, pressure, and responsibility is important in maintaining self-care and knowing when you need to ask for help, especially when it comes to caring for grieving children. If you're unsure how to help a grieving child and have recently lost a partner or loved one, sometimes asking for help is one of the best steps to take. This can include attending grief counseling for children or looking into a center for grieving children. If the death of a parent occurred during the child's adolescence, it may be worth looking into grief camps, or group counseling for teens who have lost a parent. For more ideas on how to help a child deal with a loss, check out Children's Grief Awareness Day as a resource.

To join a community of other parents or folks who have recently lost someone, consider heading to Ever Loved’s Grief Support center.

Visit the grief center

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Last updated December 14, 2022
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