Children have the same emotional needs as adults, but sometimes these needs are ignored or taken lightly. Many times adults are too full of grief to reach out to their children.

 

You can’t protect your kids from the pain of loss, but you can help build healthy coping skills.

 

As a parent, you can’t protect your children from grief, but you can help them feel safe. And by allowing and encouraging them to express their feelings, you can help him build healthy coping skills that will serve him well in the future.

emotional first aid for families

How To Tell A Child Someone Has Died

It will never be easy telling your young child that a loved one or a pet has died. You may be wondering How and what do I tell them?” 

Before you begin the conversation, take a moment to evaluate your own emotional state regarding the death. 

Do you need someone with you? 

If so, reach out to family, a friend, or a clergyperson. Then, you can break the news that someone has died in a caring way.

 

  • Be honest. Give them clean, correct facts about death compassionately and lovingly. Be careful not to over-explain.
  • Keep it simple. Use “died,” not “He/She is sleeping/passed away.” 
  • Listen carefully to their questions and answer them truthfully. 
  • Tell your children about the death, even the young ones.
  • Encourage your children to share their grief with you and with trusted friends.
  • Be aware of children’s possible guilt feelings. Assure them that the death was not their fault.
  • Give him or her choices in what to do. Some children want to go to school the day of the death. Familiar routines are comforting. Inform the school of the death before your child returns. 
  • Reassure your child that he or she will be cared for and explain the plan.
emotional first aid for children grieving

What To Say To A Child Who Is Grieving

Offering support to a grieving child can begin with a simple statement or open-ended question. Try to avoid euphemisms like, ‘She’s in a better place,’ because they can be scary or confusing for young children.

 

Here are some conversation starters:

 

Initial statements:

  • “I’m so sorry your mom/dad/sister died.”
  • “What was your dad/mom/brother like?”
  • “Tell me about your ________________________.”

 

If some time has passed:

    • What do you miss the most?
    • What is the hardest part for you?
    • What is the hardest time of the day for you?
    • Can you tell me something he said that made you laugh?
emotional first aid for children

Anytime:

  • I care about you. I care about how you’re feeling. Can you think of something that we can do that might help you feel better?
  • I’m available if you would like to talk.
  • Whenever you want to talk about it, I’m here for you.
  • I’m thinking about you, especially today because I’m aware that today is your mother’s birthday (anniversary of the death, your birthday, etc.). I’m here to listen if you want to talk or just spend time together if you don’t want to talk.

Examples of Appropriate Conversations

Children think in literal terms, and therefore what we say is what the child will believe. Always tell the child the truth about death. To soften or tell a white lie is to plant the seeds of confusion and distrust.

  • Communicate your experience. Express what you are feeling in whatever ways feel comfortable to you. Whether you want to tell your story to friends and family, or you prefer to write or draw your feelings, expressing them will help you process and move forward.
  • Find a local support group led by professionals. Support groups are frequently available for survivors. Group discussion can help you realize that you are not alone in your reactions and emotions. Support group meetings can be especially helpful for people with limited personal support systems.

Inappropriate: Grandpa went to sleep last night and he is now in Heaven.

Child’s Response: Fear of sleep, fear of the dark, nightmares

Appropriate:  Grandpa died last night. This will be a sad time for all of us, but we will get through it together.


Inappropriate: God loved Daddy so much that He took him to Heaven to live with the angels.

Child’s response: Fear of God. Fear Mother will also die. Fear of love. Rejection of spiritual values.

Appropriate:  We believe that Daddy is in Heaven with God and that God knows how much we miss Daddy.


Inappropriate: Grandma went on a long trip and won’t be coming back.

Child’s response: Why didn’t Grandma say goodbye before she left? Doesn’t Grandma love me? Fear of loss of Mom and Dad leaving for a while (i.e., to work or shopping).

Appropriate:  Grandma was very sick; she died. God said she could come and be with Him in Heaven.


Inappropriate: Well, you know what they say, only the good die young.

Child’s Response: If the good die young, I don’t want to die, so I won’t be good. Or does that mean that I am bad?

Appropriate:  How sad that such a young child died. I wonder if there is anything I can do to help the family?


Inappropriate: You must always be a good little girl because Daddy is watching you from Heaven.

Child’s Response:  Paranoia. Fear of making mistakes. Extreme guilt feelings when not behaving well coupled with an inability to make it up to the deceased parent.

Appropriate: Daddy’s love for you can never die. He is not with us like he used to be, but we will always remember and love him.


For more guidance on having these types of conversations, click here to read our post, How To Have a Conversation About Emotional Trauma

Activities To Help Children Cope With Grief

Whether a student has lost a parent, sibling, grandparent, or another relative, or if the student is struggling with loss on a larger scale, he or she needs opportunities to express his or her feelings and learn about grief.

 

Make a Collage

A collage is a poster of pictures or words. You can cut pictures or words from magazines or newspapers. Please ask for permission before doing so, and you may need help with the scissors. Look through the magazines or newspapers for pictures or words that remind you of the person who died. Maybe you’ll find his/ her first name or the name of the city he/she lived in. There are many things you can find to help you remember this person who has died.

 

Art

Sometimes there are no words for what your child is going through. drawing can be one way to express their feelings of loss or sadness. Drawing a picture of the deceased person creates a memorial, while drawing pictures of the family before and after the death helps children process the changes in their lives.

children dealing with crisis

Writing

Write a letter to the person who died; write a letter from the person who died to you; make a wish list; write in a journal; write poems about feelings or memories; make a goodbye card.

 

Storytelling/Reading

Tell stories to each other about the person who died. If you’ve lost a loved one, write a letter saying the things you never got to say. Read stories together to create your own life story.

children grieving

Grief is a heartbreaking road, especially for children. Children who are dealing with loss have many of the same feelings and needs that the adults around them do, but because they are kids, they have far fewer resources and abilities to cope with their feelings. 

It’s up to us to provide them. And there is no shame in needing help with that. The healing process takes time, but you’ll get through it together.

For specific guidance on caring for children during a time of loss, you can download our free CARE for Children card.