How to Help a Child Through Grief

Posted by: Kelly Ryan in Grief and Guidance, Memorialization | May 17

When I was little, our mother passed away, leaving behind eight children. She was just 38. Our father was so grief-stricken that he was unable to provide much, if any, support. So, our grandparents, aunts and uncles, and close family friends tried to help the best they could. I’m not even sure there was such a thing as grief counseling fifty years ago, and there were so few resources for adults to reference, that try as they might, our family just didn’t have the tools and understanding we have today to cope with grief.  


My siblings remember going back to school the next day and since our mom died on a Tuesday, they went to school the rest of the week. The memorial service was on Friday afternoon and the funeral Saturday. As adults now, my siblings and I look back and laugh at the mere thought of how school was the last thing on our minds – they walked through their day in a haze, sat through classes where their mind was somewhere else - not on the blackboard or textbook.  


Sending us back to school the next day probably won’t make any grief counselor’s top ten best practice list. We ranged in ages from one to 14, with understandably an equally wide range of emotional development, so a one-size-fits-all approach wasn’t going to work. For obvious reasons, my siblings and I have done our own research in case the unthinkable happens to any of our children – not just the loss of a parent, but the loss of anyone close to them. We’ve talked to professional grief counselors, read every book on the topic, and talked to our kids.  

 

Talk to Your Children Before They Experience Loss 

That is the first step in helping a child through grief – talking to them before they lose someone close to them. Telling stories about our mother and how we coped after she passed away was our way of introducing the topic. Use your experience(s) with losing a loved one to tell them what they may feel emotionally. We tell them how each of us handled grief and that there wasn’t one “best” way to cope. Nor is there a timeline for when grief ends. Several of my siblings would say it never does.  

 

Engage the Child on Their Emotional Level 

You’re going to speak differently to an eight-year-old than you are to a 15-year-old. That’s okay – get on their level and use clear and direct language. Put your words to good use in describing how you’re feeling. For example, “You loved Grandpa so much, as we all did, so it is understandable that you’re sad – we all are. I’m going to miss him so much – his sense of humor, his laugh - it feels terrible that he’s not with us anymore.” Keep your words simple, especially so if the child is young.  


Invite Them to Actively Participate in Planning Services 

Asking the child, or children, to take an active role in planning or attending events such as viewings, funeral, or memorial services may help them cope with the loss. Prepare them for what is likely to happen at each event, from how to respond to well-wishers who express their condolences to the experience of seeing their grandpa in an open casket. Any of the events may be one of the most visibly emotional situations that the child has ever experienced, so make sure they know they may be seeing a lot of tears, crying, and hugging.  


Encourage Them to Express Their Grief 

Make sure they know that everyone processes grief in their own way, and they are free and will be supported however they choose to do so. When they are feeling a certain way, encourage them to express their feelings, that suppressing them may only lead to problems down the road. And as we noted earlier, be cognizant of their development level – some kids may not have the verbal skill level to adequately express their grief but may be able to do so through pictures or drawings. There are several good books written by grief counselors that can also help a child more purposefully express their feelings after the loss of a loved one.  

 

Continue to Offer Support and Encouragement, But Don’t Forget About You 

It is imperative that you give yourself time to grieve and the space to do so. You won’t be able to offer your children much support if you’re not taking your own advice and working through your emotions and feelings. In fact, by modeling that behavior, your children will see how important it is to express their grief.  


It is natural for your children to worry, with the passing of one of their grandparents, for example, about your life. As the realization that their loved one isn’t coming back hits, your children will want to be reassured that you aren’t going anywhere. If the loved one’s death occurred under extremely stressful circumstances or was a shock, your child may need even more time to process their grief.  


Extenuating circumstances around the loss of a loved one may mean that the grieving period may be extenuating as well. If you believe your children need more help navigating the grieving process, consult with your doctor or your children’s doctor so they can help you work with the best therapist or grief counselor for the family.  


Although it is important to give your children as much time and space as needed to grieve over the death of a loved one, it is also important for your children to get back to their traditional patterns and routines, so your child understands that life does go on. 


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