Helping Children Cope with Grief

“A child can live with anything as long as he or she is told the truth and is allowed to share with loved ones the natural feelings people have when they are suffering.” ~ Eda LeShan, Counselor

How children grieve

Children cope with grief differently than adults. After losing a loved one, a child may go from crying one minute to playing the next. Playing can be a defense mechanism for children to keep them from becoming overwhelmed. It is also normal for a child to feel depressed, guilty, anxious and even angry towards the person who has died or even at someone else entirely.

More than adults, children need time to take a break from grief. Mood changes or feelings of grief, even several years after the event, are common as a child adapts to the loss of someone. It is important to listen to children, meet them on their terms and come to understand their unique grief reactions.

Helping your child say goodbye

Allowing children to say goodbye in ways that feel right to them is important for the grieving process. However, don’t assume that what holds true for one child will be the same for another. Some children may want to see pictures and memorabilia of the deceased while others may not. Some may want to actively participate in the funeral service while others may not even want to attend. Below are a few ideas to help children say goodbye to a loved one. Many can be incorporated into the funeral service or done separately.

  • Help pick out something for the funeral service like the casket or flowers
  • Plant a tree or flower in memory of the loved one
  • Release balloons into the sky with messages to the deceased
  • Create a memory box with special mementos and photos of the deceased

Practical guidelines to help children cope with grief

Answer their questions
It is hard to know how a child will react to death, or even if he/she can grasp the concept. Don’t overwhelm them by offering too much information. Instead, try to answer their questions in simple terms.

Use direct language
When a child asks what happened, use concrete words such as “died” or “killed” instead of vague terms like “passed away.” A young child who hears their mother say, “Dad passed away” or, “I lost my husband,” may be expecting that their father will return or simply needs to be found.

Listen to them
Listen to a child share his or her experiences without trying to judge, evaluate or fix anything. Children are more likely to share their feelings if they're not pressured to respond in a certain way, so use open-ended questions like “What’s that been like?” This helps validate their experiences and emotions and allows them to regain a sense of safety, balance and control.

Questions to ask

Below are a few questions to ask your local Golden Rule Funeral Director about helping children cope with grief:

  1. How old should children be before participating in a funeral?
  2. What are appropriate ways a child can participate in the funeral service?
  3. What activities can children do to help memorialize their loved ones?
  4. Is there a good place--a private room, a room with children’s toys or activities, or somewhere else in or near the funeral home—to take a child for a break from the funeral service?
  5. In what ways can I make this experience more comfortable for a child?
  6. How should I prepare a child for the funeral service?

List of additional sources

Below is a list of resources to help you learn more about helping children cope with grief:

The Dougy Center → www.dougy.org

National Alliance for Grieving Children → www.childrengrieve.org

Comfort Zone Camp → www.comfortzonecamp.org

The Moyer Foundation → www.elunanetwork.org


Sources

The Dougy Center (“How to Help a Grieving Child,”n.d.), Affinity Funerals (“Helping Children Cope with Grief,” n.d.), Child Mind Institute (“Helping Children Deal With Grief,” n.d.)


If you are a Golden Rule Funeral Home and want to give this information in print to families, click here.

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