Grieving and death can be taboo topics because everyone grieves differently and has different beliefs about what happens after death. Regardless of beliefs, lots of adults can have a tough time finding the words to help a child cope with death in a healthy way. Well here are a few things that can help make the topic a bit less scary when we’re presenting it to children dealing with a loss. Each of these recommendations can be tailored to younger or older children based on their level of understanding about death.

Talk. Create an environment in which a grieving child has a safe place to talk and ask questions. Encourage open and honest communication about the person who has died and the events happening. Be mindful of not going in to more detail than is necessary for their age. Listen to what they are saying and be curious about their thoughts and feelings on the subject. Attempt to use clear phrases and terms such as “died” and “dead” rather than “passed away” or “in a better place” etc. as the latter can confuse a younger child.

Respect Feelings. Children may not look sad or express grief in the same way as adults but should be encouraged to find appropriate ways of displaying however they are feeling. As a parent you can explain that grief and all the feelings that come along with it are normal. Confusion, sadness, anger and guilt are just a few of the typical emotional responses. “I can see that you’re angry, I wonder what might be making you feel that way? ” Encourage them to verbalize and label their own emotions and worries but try not to push if they aren’t able to. ” I’ve been feeling sad lately because I miss them. What feelings have you been having? ” Children grieve differently than adults and often come in and out of various stages of grief which are punctuated by periods of play. Children may not cry or look sad.

Reassure . Hug or hold hands. At times you can rest a hand on their shoulder to show that you acknowledge them even if you’re talking with other adults. “I’m here for a hug anytime, you just let me know”. You can also help a child feel secure by maintaining consistency with their daily routines as much as possible. Children often feel more safe when they know what to expect and can predict how their day will go.

Prepare. Explain step by step of what to expect or how to behave during certain events or situations such as at a funeral, in a cemetery etc. Don’t forget that this may be their first experience with death therefore they have no reference point and may not understand what is happening. “We’re going in to the service now where everyone will be sitting quietly, if you need anything when we’re in there please whisper”  Give your child your time and attention when possible. Sometimes it can help to give your child age appropriate tasks during a service or memorial to help them feel included.” Can you please be in charge of taking all the programs and putting them on the seats?”.

Remember. Find ways to remember your loved one. Look through pictures, share stories, listen to music that reminds you of them or make their favorite meal. Keep traditions alive that your child used to do with the person who died. ” Would you like to help me make some lasagna? It was one of their favorite foods. I’ll teach you about the secret ingredient.”

Accept Support. For you and your children. Allow others to show their love and care for your family by supporting you during this difficult time. Allow your child to spend time at a trusted family or friends house, allow family to bring meals so you can focus on yourself and your children rather than cooking. Seek support from a therapist for yourself or your child if needed.

I wish you and your family all the best!

Dr. Steranko