How to Talk to Children About Grief
We can’t protect our kids from loss, but we can help them understand that grieving is a healthy, normal reaction. Children grieve in their own ways. Keep reading for tips on how to talk to children and teens about grief, suggested books, and links to helpful resources.
For many kids, their first experience with death is losing a pet. While we are not diminishing the importance of this loss, this guide focuses on helping children deal with grief from losing a grandparent, parent, sibling, or another important person in their lives.
Many factors influence how children react to death, including their age, life experience, emotional and intellectual maturity, and the closeness of their relationship to the person who died.
But overwhelmingly, children take cues from their parents and the adults around them. Are they in a supportive environment with lots of safe zones? Will they be judged or disciplined if they do not act or react in a specific way?
You can guide children toward healthy coping skills regarding death and grief by keeping a few things in mind.
Be Truthful Using Simple, Gentle Words
Honesty is the best policy when it’s time to tell your child that someone has died. Use clear and direct words appropriate for your child’s age and maturity. Put yourself in a position where you are face-level with your child, perhaps sitting next to each other or your child sitting on your lap.
When you put your feelings into words, you make it easier for your child to share their feelings. And while you might not want to express everything about your grief, it’s okay to cry and show sadness if that’s what you’re feeling.
Avoid Euphemisms About Death
Adults know that death is permanent and inevitable. Children do not. That’s why saying things like “We lost Grandma” or “Aunt Becky passed away” is more frightening and confusing than saying “died.” Imagine how scary it is for a five-year-old to hear that their beloved Papa went to sleep and never woke up. It could be weeks or months before they willingly or eagerly go to bed, and there could be long-term emotional damage.
You Might Have to Repeat the Conversation…
Very young children do not understand that death is permanent since many movies, television shows, and video games have characters who come back to life. School-age kids might know that death is permanent but is rare and won’t affect them. Don’t be surprised if a preschooler seemingly understands the news in the morning but asks for Grandmom to tuck them into bed that night. It will take a little time for the finality to sink in.
…And Be Prepared for Questions
Children have questions about everything, and death (and the grief that follows) sparks many questions. Sensitive children often ask if the person was in pain or if death hurts. Older children and adolescents will worry about their health or the health of their parents, siblings, and other relatives.
When answering questions about the death process, be clear and calm. You can reassure your child with answers appropriate to their age and emotional maturity. Your responses also depend on the circumstances, age, and health of the person who died.
Let Kids Grieve Their Way
Some might cry. Others might want to return to what they were doing before you told them. Some might want to hug and snuggle; others might want to go to a friend’s house. The most important thing you can do is to listen and comfort them in a loving, non-judgemental way.
Tell Kids What to Expect in the Coming Days
Death is disruptive, and children are upset without a routine they know and expect. Tell them if someone else will take them to school, make dinner, or drive them to band practice. Let them know it’s temporary. Explain that life will be different for a while, but things will settle down soon.
Tell them what to expect if you bring your child to the funeral or service. Most importantly, reassure them that you will be with them, and they can step outside or ask to go home if they want.
Grief Activities for Kids
Creative activities, physical movement, and playtime help grieving children express their feelings. Here are suggested grief activities for kids and adolescents.
Family Rock Garden
Collect rocks and write characteristics about your loved one using paint or markers. Young children can use stickers or draw. Put the stones in a special place in the home or yard.
Children’s grief counselors recommend that kids have a safe space to share their feelings. Give them a small box (a shoebox works great) to decorate. Encourage them to write (or draw) any questions or feelings they have on a piece of paper. Discuss their feelings or questions at a family meeting.
One of the most important ways you can help a grieving child is to give them safe ways to release anger and other strong emotions without harm. You can give them paper to write or draw their feelings, then encourage them to rip the paper up. Another option is putting the paper into a balloon, inflating it, then allowing them to stomp on the balloon. You could also go outside and let them throw soft wet objects (wet paper or sponges) at a wall.
Children’s Books about Grief
Parents often ask about ways to talk to children about death and grief. One of the most effective ways is by reading books on the subject and discussing them after. Below are suggested books according to age and reading levels.
The Invisible String
The Grandpa Tree
Everybody Feels Sad
Where Do People Go When They Die?
Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs
The Mountains of Tibet
Lost and Found: Remembering a Sister
A Taste of Blackberries
Bridge to Terabithia
I Wish I Could Hold Your Hand
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney
More Help from Tulip
Tulip Expert Advice Guides:
Does Cremation Hurt? How to Talk to Kids About Cremation
What Funeral Directors Know About Grief (And You Should Too)
Top Picks for Podcasts on Life, Loss & Laughter
National Alliance for Children’s Grief
Grief and Children: American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
How to Help a Grieving Child: The Dougy Center
Supporting Children in Times of Grief: Mayo Clinic Health System