How to Talk to Your Children About Death and Help Them Cope with Their Grief

  • Published: November 15th, 2012
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By the Center for Grief Care and Education

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Oftentimes, when a loved one dies, children, and their grief, can be overlooked. That is why Children’s Grief Awareness Day, recognized on November 15 this year, provides an important opportunity to shed light on the unique aspects of children’s grief, provide strategies for adults to help children cope with their grief and suggest ways adults can begin to talk about death and grief with the children in their lives.

The Center for Grief Care and Education at San Diego Hospice recommends the following strategies for talking to the children in your life when a loved one dies:

  • Choose the appropriate adult to begin the conversation with the child.
    The adult selected should be one that the child would feel most comfortable with talking to about the death. This could be his or her parent, but it could also be their favorite uncle or a trusted teacher.
  • The child and adult should have the conversation in a safe and familiar setting
  • Be honest with the child and simply explain that the loved one has died and how it happened. Don’t use ambiguous terms, such as “sleeping” for death or vague terms such as “passed away” or “lost”.
  • Give the child appropriate information for their age. Older children may need more information.
  • Remind the children that he/she is safe and encourage them to share their feelings now or whenever they feel comfortable.

Now that you have shared the news with the child, you can help him or her as they cope with their grief. This includes:

  • To help grasp the reality and to say goodbye, some children request to see the body. Assuming the body is appropriate to view, it is always best to give children this choice.
  • Children also need to be given the choice about going to the funeral or memorial service. Even if they choose not to attend, they may be encouraged to participate in some way, such as picking the flowers, a song, a reading, or sharing a memory about the person.
  • Listen to the child’s feelings and accept them, even when they are different from yours.
  • Be sure to answer the all questions the child asks. No more, no less.
  • Do not be worried if you don’t have an answer to a question. Explain that you don’t know and, if appropriate, express your desire for the answer also.
  • Talk with the child about the person who died. It’s ok to use their name and share what you remember about the person (i.e. “Your dad really liked this song.” “The beach was your mom’s favorite place.”)
  • Allow children a “break” from grieving. Adults may grieve intensely whereas children grieve in cycles. Children may need a break in order to engage in normal activities.  Having fun and laughing is not disrespectful to the deceased, but rather a vital part of your child’s grief.
  • Children communicate primarily through the use of symbolic language (play and art). Engage the child in an activity such as the “I Remember” book as a way to share memories.

Remember that each child’s grief is unique and it’s important that the adults in their lives allow them space to grieve. If you find that you need help or would like to talk with a counselor, the Center for Grief Care and Education offers individual and family counseling and Grief Street, a family bereavement program for children and families who are grieving. For information on grief and loss services, contact the Center for Grief Care and Education at griefinfo@sdhospice.org or call 619-278-6480. For more information on Children’s Grief Awareness Day, click here.

 


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