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Helping Children Cope With Death

hen children experience the death of a loved one they grieve, just as adults do. They may not be able to verbalize their grief. They may repress their feelings or express them through their behavior. They may seem not to be affected. However, they are grieving, often very deeply.

As parents we often want to protect children from the pain of grief. Because we have difficulty dealing with death, we wonder how a young child could possibly cope with it. So we exclude children. We leave them to answer their own questions as they struggle to cope with their loss. As a result, many children facing such a significant loss feel bewildered and abandoned.

Ways to Help Children Cope With Death

  • Be direct, simple and honest; explain truthfully what happened in terms that children can understand
  • Encourage the child to express feelings openly; crying is normal and helpful
  • Accept the emotions and reactions the child expresses; don't tell the child how he or she should or should not feel
  • Offer warmth and your physical presence and affection
  • Share your feeling with the child. Allow the child to
    Care you
  • Be patient; know that children need to hear "the story" and to ask the same questions again and again
  • Reassure the child that death is not contagious, that the death of one person does not mean the child or other loved ones will soon die; maintain as much order, stability and security in the child's life as you can
  • Listen to what the child is telling or asking you and then respond according to the child's needs
  • Allow the child to make some decisions about participation in family rituals, such as visitation, the funeral and socializing after the funeral; be sure to explain in advance what
    will happen
  • A child's schoolwork or school life may be affected by the death; the teacher and the school counselor should be made aware of the situation and if serious problems arise on a constant basis, professional help should be sought for
    the child.

Some Behaviors of Grieving Children

Children may react to death in a variety of ways. Some will experience many of the following reactions, some only a few. Some will react immediately; some may have very delayed reactions.

  • Denial - "My mommy didn't really die." When a child resumes play immediately or laughs inappropriately it does not mean there are no feelings. It does mean the loss is simply too difficult to bear at the moment.
  • Anger and Hostility - "How could they die and leave me here all alone like this?" "Why didn't mommy and daddy take better care of my baby brother?" "Why did God let my friend die?" Anger should never be suppressed. It is important to help children realize they're really angry about the loss of their loved one.
  • Guilt - "If I hadn't been such a bad little girl or boy my mommy wouldn't have died." "I was mad at my brother or sister, that's why she or she died." Children often believe that something they said or did may have caused the death. For example, children may believe that because they did not know CPR they are responsible for the death. It is very important to be watchful for this kind of guilt and to assure the child that this is not the case. Double check to make sure they understand and believe you.
  • Panic - "Who will take care of me now?" When a death has recently occurred, especially if it is the death of a parent, common concern among children is whether they will be cared for. Children need to be reassured that, although something upsetting has happened and the adults are perhaps confused and/or agitated, the children have no need to fear for their safety.
  • Clinging or Replacement - "Don't leave me mommy!" "Uncle Dave, do you love me as much as Daddy did?" Hold them and give them your love and this will pass.
  • Bodily Distress and Anxiety - "I can't sleep." "I feel sick just like my sister or brother did before he or she died." Keep your doctor informed about any problems and, with time and caring, this should also pass.
  • Idealization- "Grandpa was perfect." In their eyes and memory maybe grandpa did seem perfect. This is a common reaction for us all.
  • Assumed Mannerisms- "Don't I sound just like my Daddy?"

All these reactions are very common and should not cause undue concern unless they continue for several months.

Common Explanations That May Confuse Children

Some of the explanations we use with children can actually make the grief process more difficult or cause problems later in life.

  • Your mother went on a long journey - "Then why is everyone crying?" "Why didn't she say good-bye?" "I though vacation trips were supposed to be fun." "Daddy, please don't go away." "When will she be back?"
  • Your Aunt was sick and had to go to the hospital - "If I get sick will I go to the hospital and die, too?" "I don't want my sister to go to the hospital for an operation." "The doctor is bad. He made Aunt Sue die!"
  • It was God's will. God was lonely and wanted your brother. He was so good that God wanted him in heaven- "I'm lonely for my brother. I need him more than God does. God is mean!" "If God wants the good people, I'm going to be as bad as I can. I don't want to die."
  • Your grandfather went to sleep- "I don't want to go to bed." "I'll make myself stay awake all night so I won't die too."

With your loving and patient concern, the child will be better able to work through the grief process and grow, once again, into a full and healthy life.