Fernside

Hospice of Cincinnati

How to Help a Grieving Child

Introduction

Through our peer support groups, crisis response, camp program and community outreach we serve over 1,000 children and their parents/guardians each year.

This booklet was written especially for families who have experienced a death and to offer helpful advice and guidance for adults who are now raising grieving children and teens.

The most important message is: You can’t fix grief.

Caring adults who try to “fix” or “solve” a child’s grief will be frustrated. Their good intentions will not work. Instead, caring adults need to honor and support the child’s grief.

Death is an event that leaves a permanent hole in a child’s life. It cannot be fixed.

Allow the child to grieve. Be available for the child. Listen. Do not set a time limit on grief. Encourage them to share. Help them find their own words.

How to Tell

Inform the child as soon as possible. The child should hear the truth from someone close, not from outsiders. Waiting for the "right time" may cause confusion and resentment, and can damage trust. Children need to know what happened to the body. Some want more details than others. Your child’s age will determine how much detail to give them. Explain clearly, simply and honestly, what caused the death.

Some things you can say:

  • "Her body stopped working and could not be fixed. She couldn't breathe or eat anymore."
  • "He was very, very sick for a long time, and there was no medicine that could help."
  • "She died."

Some things that can cause confusion:

  • "God needed an angel."
  • "She went on a trip and can't come back."
  • "He went to sleep and won't wake up."

Explain that the death was not the child’s fault. Some children may believe that something they did, said, or thought might have caused the death. Reassure them that nothing they did or said caused the death.

Be prepared to repeat what happened. This is especially important for a very young child. Be patient. If the child was present, it can be helpful for the child to go over what happened.

Children may ask questions about the details of the death over a period of time. Let their questions guide you to how much information they need. This information can help a child make sense of what has happened.

The most important thing is to be honest. It’s okay not to have all the answers.

Memorial Ceremonies

The are an opportunity for your child to remember the person who died. It can be helpful to include your child in the process – family and friends visiting, the visitation, the funeral or memorial service or a trip to the cemetery.

Prepare your child beforehand. Describe what will happen in clear and simple terms. Tell your child what they will see and hear. Explain the purpose of any rituals.

Ask your child to help:

  • Arrange flowers or help with food
  • Choose a favorite song or story for the service
  • Write a note to go inside the casket
  • Take a special gift or flower to the service
  • Invite friends and teachers
  • Create a collage of photos

Encourage your child to participate. Taking part in even some of the rituals helps the child to understand and feel less alone.

It can be helpful to ask a trusted adult to be available for your child at the visitation, funeral or memorial service in case the child needs a break.

Spiritual Beliefs

If your family has a spiritual belief about life after death, it’s okay to talk about this belief with your child.

Sharing what your family believes may help your child feel better about what happened to their loved one’s spirit.

However, spiritual explanations are not a substitute for explaining what happened to the body. It is important for a child to understand what happens when someone dies.

Feelings and Communication

Grief is a normal response to losing someone who was loved or important. Each individual grieves in their own unique way. Some children grieve openly while others are more quiet. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.

There are many different feelings we have after a death. Some feelings will be new for your child.

It’s normal for them to feel angry, guilty, frustrated and scared. Encourage safe ways for your child to express their feelings:

  • Create art
  • Punch a pillow
  • Listen to music or make music
  • Get some exercise
  • Keep a journal

Encourage communication. Listen carefully. Acknowledge and validate your child’s feelings. Your child might be worried about:

  • "Who would take care of me if you died?"
  • "Will Susie die when she goes to the hospital to get her tonsils out?"

Expressing your own feelings can let your child know its okay for them to express theirs.

You might say:

  • "I can see you’re feeling sad today and I’m sad too.”
  • “Remember when your sister used to sing that silly song?”
  • “I get angry, too, sometimes.”
  • “Let’s look together at the scrapbook about Daddy.”
  • “Your Mom loved the way you played soccer.”
  • “I miss him today, too.”

Changes at Home

After someone dies, things can feel different in your family. Change is inevitable. You will experience big changes as well as small changes.

Try to maintain some of your normal routines. Structure can be helpful. It can feel comforting to know what to expect.

Be realistic about how much any of you can do. Everyone may appreciate a temporary scaling back from a full schedule. Allow family and friends to help.

If you can, put off any big changes. When it’s time for a change, be sure to let your child know.

Changes at School

After someone dies, it might be hard for your child to see their friends or to go back to school. While some children want to be with their friends right away, other children may need a little more time.

Having a plan and working closely with your child’s teachers and school staff can help create a supportive environment for your child.

Set up ways to help your child cope with:

  • Difficulty concentrating on school work
  • Problems with classmates
  • Days when they feel especially sad or vulnerable

Also available from Fernside is our booklet, How to Help Grieving Children in the Classroom.

Reminders

There are also additional influencing factors that can affect the grief process in children. Some of these are the cause of death, the relationship with the person who died and the history of losses within the family. It’s important to consider how these might affect your child.

It's important to keep in mind that:

  • There is no time limit on grief.
  • Each child is unique, including siblings.
  • Each child has different concerns, questions, feelings and grief styles.
  • Children grieve sporadically. Understand there will be times when your child might focus on the death by asking questions or crying. Other times they seem unaffected.
  • Children reprocess their grief as they move through developmental stages.
  • Holidays, birthdays and milestones (graduations, mitzvahs, weddings, etc.) are events that can intensify grief.