How to Help Children Cope With Death and Loss

Grieving is not always shown through tears, but through many changes you may notice in your child.
Grieving is not always shown through tears, but through many changes you may notice in your child. | Source

Explaining Death to Children

Death is hard to deal with no matter what age you are. My daughter experienced more in her first four years, than many thirty-year-olds have. The most significant of these was the death of her father. Many days she doesn't appear to be grieving, so it comes as a surprise to find her in a moment of mourning and I realize that I need to learn new ways to help her cope with the death. This is very typical in children, not to show the normal signs of grief.

Grief and Children

Children Don't Always Appear to React to the Loss?

This is common, especially after the initial shock. That doesn't mean they aren't feeling anything. A young child often is unable to communicate what is on their mind. Although school-age children can, remember they are still children and often would rather play than think about what hurts. Therefore, don't be surprised if their thoughts of grief show up in an over reaction to a toy taken or becoming needy or even more obedient.

With my daughter, she insisted on being near me at all times, and repeated the word "mama" continuously. For the most part she was a happy go lucky child who was very well behaved. She would randomly ask questions regarding her father's death, usually while I was driving. Maybe my eyes being away from her helped her to feel like she could ask.

It's very typical that they may grieve for a moment, then go right into playing. This doesn't mean they are not dealing, it just means they are dealing with it in their own way.

Answering Questions about Death: Top Rule - Be Honest

The most important thing about answering questions about death is being honest. Also keep in mind their age. Keep answers short and simple. Also, it is important not to answer questions that are not asked. By giving a child too much information, especially at once, may overwhelm them and cause undue stress. Answer the questions that are asked. Do not avoid telling them the truth. If they want to know, they have the right to know.

Helping Children Understand Death

Be Age Appropriate

In cases of suicide or homicide, it is a very sticky situation. It is very important to stick with age appropriate information. This is where my experience is. Since the death is truly unknown, I was able to maintain that honestly, throughout her childhood. As she is getting older, and asking tougher questions, I answer what she asks, but no more. When she is old enough to ask the right questions, she is old enough to know the truth. Yet, I use tact and love to answer each question, especially questions that are hard to hear the answer.

Be careful with leading questions like, "Are you sad?" Because they may begin acting sad even if that is not what they felt when you asked. Instead ask questions like, "How are you feeling?"
Be careful with leading questions like, "Are you sad?" Because they may begin acting sad even if that is not what they felt when you asked. Instead ask questions like, "How are you feeling?" | Source

Phrasings To Avoid

Avoid Euphemisms: like, "passed away," "went on a trip forever," or "moved to heaven." This will only confuse him/her. Use direct words like "died." By making death softer, they may not have full understanding of what happened. They may also fear going on a trip or even thinking heaven is a bad place, because people don't come back from there.

Avoid Oversimplifying the Illness that Led to the Death: like "they went to the hospital and died," or "got sick and died." These statements may cause them to fear when others go to the hospital that they will die as well. Or if they get sick, they may fear death for themselves. If your loved one who died was sick before they passed away, make sure there is a clear connection that they had a special sickness not just a common cold. For instance, if they had cancer, say they had cancer. If they had a heart attack, say they had heart attack. If they ask what that is, explain that it's a very serious illness that causes the body to stop working." By being direct, it leaves little to the imagination.

In more complicated cases, where the child is not old enough to handle a death like in the case of a suicide or a homicide, a child psychologist suggested to my daughter's biological aunt to say it like this: "Your daddy's body is broken, and he died." If they ask why or how, just reaffirm that the body won't work anymore." Dependent on religious beliefs you can encourage your child to talk to their loved one at a cemetery or in a prayer, but explain that they won't be able to talk to their body anymore. Also, make sure you know when a child psychologist is needed.

Talking to Children About Death

Let Them Talk and LISTEN

One thing important to remember is to let your child do the talking. If they want to ask questions encourage them, answer them, be polite, but let them dominate the conversation. If they want to be quiet, don't force them to talk. You may ask, "I notice you're quiet, what are you thinking about?" Avoid leading questions like, "Are you thinking about (so and so)?" or "Are you feeling sad." Often this kind of question may become a self fulfilling prophecy. If they think they are supposed to be thinking about their loved one, they may say yes even if they were not. If they think you thought they were sad, they may act sad even if they were quiet due to something completely unrelated.

Also, don't become offended if they say things like, "I wish (deceased loved one) was here, not you." That doesn't mean they don't love you, or that they wish you were dead; they are expressing their feelings of missing that person. Let them say it, and don't admonish them for being hurtful. Until they completely comprehend death and its finality, they won't realize how hurtful what they say is.

Don't be Afraid to Talk About the Loved One

I know for my daughter, it was very easy to call me mama, because although she had a mother, her mom was not her primary caretaker. It took her a little longer to call my husband daddy. I do remember the day that she started calling him daddy was the day that I put her birth fathers pictures around the house. I got them from her aunt and I let her decide where to put them. We had one in the living room, one in our hall of fame, but most in her bedroom. She slept with them for weeks. I even would ask her questions like, "What did he do with you before bed." She loved talking about him! Often times this would lead into questions about his death.

Grieving Children

Don't Assume

Don't assume you know how they are feeling. One thing important to realize is young children don't know how to anticipate the future. They may not be completely aware that someone is done. They may hear the word death, see a dead body, yet anticipate their arrival anyway.

It is important that you don't force conversation trying to get them to understand, this will upset them more, and they may react negatively due to information overload or forcing them to talk when they are not ready or giving them more than they can understand. That being said, don't assume that they won't understand. Be careful what you talk about with them in ear shot. If you think a conversation about a loved ones death is over their head, you will be surprised at what they do understand. Also be respectful, even if the loss is someone that you didn't care for, but the child does like an ex-husband, ex-wife, etc.

Let them cry when they need to. Let yourself cry as well.
Let them cry when they need to. Let yourself cry as well. | Source

Above All Else, Love and Care for Them

The most important thing is to let a child knowthat they are loved and cared for. Don't just love them with words, love them with action. Be respectful that they are grieving. Keep things consistent. Don't allow bad behaviors that you wouldn't allow before, but take those opportunities to talk. If they don't recognize the reason they are doing something bad is because they are grieving, let them know that you love them, but the behavior is unacceptable. Don't give them a free pass to bad behavior, just because you don't want to cause more pain. Instead teach them how to express anger, grief, sadness in healthy nondestructive ways.

A child might become more needy. I know my child would sometimes say my name at least once every minute. There was one day when my daughter was having a specifically hard day, my husband even counted how many times she said, "mama" in a span of a half hour. It was 39 times. It does get overwhelming, but be patient. Cuddle, talk, let them know you love them. If it's not realistic to cuddle at the time, then let them do an activity near you or show them signs you love them in other ways. If you're in the car, then just hold their hand.

Lean On Others

This is especially important if you as well are grieving. By leaning others, you allow your child to see that they have a strong support system. The more people you allow to help through this hard time, the more secure your child will be, and the less stress you will go through.Though it is important to help your child through grieving, don't forget you need to care for yourself. You can sufficiently care for a child if your needs are lacking.

Even if you are not grieving, like in my case as a foster parent then adoptive mother, there were days when her clinging and constant "mama" became overwhelming. I would pick up the phone and ask if I could visit or invite someone over. The distraction would cause her to relax, and would give me a breather, so that way when she had another clingy moment I was more equipped to respond. Don't feel guilty for these moments. By bringing other people over who love her and wanted to play with her, it let her know that she was loved. That she may have lost someone who she loved and who loved her, but she still had others.

Children Grieving

Don't be afraid of the stigma of seeing a Psychologist

If a child is grieving, don't be afraid of them talking to a counselor. If you feel there is a stigma, be careful of projecting that onto the child. There are many ways that a psychologist can reach a child that a parent cannot. For instance, if a child knows their father is grieving, they may be afraid to mention their mommy, because it upsets daddy. To a psychologist, they would not have that same fear. Psychologists are trained to identify issues and to address those issues that you may not be equipped to.

Life is hard, death is even harder. Help your child with the tools you can. Be direct, be honest, while keeping things age appropriate. Recognize if they need to talk to someone, or if you need help. Also know that you will get through this, and so will they. Let them grieve.

© 2010 Angela Michelle

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Comments 14 comments

angela_michelle profile image

angela_michelle 4 years ago from United States Author

She is doing very well. She has less and less bad days!

teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 4 years ago

I was glued to the screen reading your hub. What a story of tragedy, and yet full of hope. You handled the situation very well and I am sure your daughter will continue to heal through the coming years. Love your advice and points on this topic. Voted up, up!

angela_michelle profile image

angela_michelle 5 years ago from United States Author

I hope that some of this information helps someone out there! I know I have a lot to learn on the subject matter myself. :)

Fluffy77 profile image

Fluffy77 5 years ago from Enterprise, OR

Very useful and important subject of life, my Mother and I both work at the local elderly home here in our small community. Death happens around us all the time, we live with and care for my disabled Dad and dying Grandpa. We do our best to explain to our little family members when they visit us. It's not always easy though, thank you so very much for this. Knowledge is power, after all.

angela_michelle profile image

angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States Author

Thanks for the great compliment! I think it does soften the blow to an adult who understands death at a deep level. But children do in fact need to hear it directly. They often think people can just come back to life, and have not yet understood the finality of it.

noorin profile image

noorin 6 years ago from Canada

Amazing hub, a lot of the ideas wouldn't have crossed my mind especially using the euphemisms. Thought they actually helped but now that I came to think about it , it is kinda of confusing.

Thanks for sharing examples of your personal life. =)

angela_michelle profile image

angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States Author


Cakes 6 years ago

You rock!

angela_michelle profile image

angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States Author

I think I'll check them out soon, and maybe I will have to put a link to your hub from mine. :)

tom hellert profile image

tom hellert 6 years ago from home

thankks for your fan mail- i have the "ace up my sleeve when talking about Death because... i was``.. so I can speak from REAL experience- ~~~But ~i think your `hub h`ere would `be a good wa`y`` to go about it if ya don't have the inside scoop like I do- i weote 3 Hubs about it`````````...But your hub ``is ``very good. As for the guy with the gold fish-not a big deal either way- tell your husband as long as the tank is covered and a stand alone tank the cats will look but grow tired of itt -we have 2 cats- an open bowl=wet cat paws and a freaked out fish...

angela_michelle profile image

angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States Author

I am trying to get my husband to agree to pet fish for my daughter, but, I haven't gotten him convinced. He thinks our cats will eat it.

Jamiehousehusband profile image

Jamiehousehusband 6 years ago from Derbyshire, UK

I wouldn't have done it with a larger pet - thanks for that.

angela_michelle profile image

angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States Author

I have to giggle at your decision. I'm not sure what I would have chosen. It is a hard choice. In a way, I think it would be easier to explain death if they experienced it with a pet first and realized the permanence. Hopefully you will never have to encounter such a conversation. They are harder than you can imagine.

Jamiehousehusband profile image

Jamiehousehusband 6 years ago from Derbyshire, UK

Well put hub about such a difficult subject - my 7yr olds goldfish died whilst she was at school this week and I confess here to having replaced it to save her pain, feeling guilty now as to whether I should have, maybe it was just more expedient for me...

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