There is nothing in a child’s life that will prepare them for the death of a loved one. While children pass through the same stages of grief as adults, due to their limited life experiences, they will grieve differently. It is important to remember that every person and child grieves differently and at his or her own pace, and the sadness they feel due to the loss of a parent or other loved one may be experienced in many different ways over time. By helping your child grieve in a healthy manner, your child can build a new normal, one where happy memories exist with the hope for brighter days.
1. Acknowledge Your Child’s Grief. It is important to recognize that your child is grieving. Be careful not to impose your own grief on your child, but rather allow him or her to grieve in his or her own way. It is normal for children to feel a variety of feelings, including sadness, anger, and fear. Parents might worry about their children when they go from one feeling to the next, but experts assure parents that children will grieve as much as they need to, as long as they are allowed to do so.
2. Be Honest and Explain the Loss. It is important to present the news in a straightforward manner with age-appropriate information. Children may have difficulty processing lengthy explanations, but they do need facts. Something as simple as, “Uncle Joe’s heart stopped working yesterday which made his body stop working.” Older children will need more specific facts, such as the name of an illness. Remember to stay focused on this one incident and provide frequent reminders that you are ok.
3. Share Memories. Find ways as a family to remember your loved one. Perhaps it’s something that’s visible on a daily basis, like planting a tree in the back yard or creating a special picture book all about Uncle Joe, or sending off balloons once a year—anything that connects your family to your loved one who has passed.
4. Write about the Experience. One way to help children move past their grief is to have a parent or adult write down the experience of hearing the loss so that the child does not have to relive it all of the time. Many times, children (and adults) are afraid or nervous that if that don’t relive the moment of death, they will forget it. By having something to reflect on, they will always be able to remember the experience and therefore be able to move forward.
5. Allow Children to Participate: Engaging children in the planning of activities can help them feel connected to what is happening around them. Let them talk about it. Children need to have the opportunity to put their feelings into words. They may be anxious about the safety of other loved ones or themselves. Or they may be feeling guilty about times they weren’t nice to the deceased, or sad thinking about opportunities they missed to show affection. They will do better if they can express their feelings to those who can provide the reassurance they need to heal.
6. Provide Resources: Consider turning to activities that you can do as a family to help with the grieving process. These may include reading children’s books or watching movies. Connecting with characters or hearing another expert’s perspective may help them feel less alone in the experience. During the healing process, they will likely realize that everyone will go through the loss of either with a pet or a loved one.
Here are 4 books that can help children process their grief and loss.
A Tiny Step Forward by Charlene Khaghan and Jill Starishevsky (Ages 4-8)
A Tiny Step Forward was written to let young children know that if they have lost someone close, be it a friend or family member, it is okay to feel upset and miss the person they are grieving. And, in the days that follow, it is okay to once again feel happy and to enjoy life as their loved one would have wanted for them. Though each day may only be a tiny step forward, the author’s hope is that the final stanza of the book will always serve as a reminder that our loved ones are never truly gone as long as they live in our hearts. In addition, the book includes a section designated for kids to include a photo of their loved one and space to include some of their favorite thoughts and memories.
The Invisible String by Patrice Karst (Ages 7-12)
The Invisible String is a very simple approach to overcoming the fear of loneliness or separation with an imaginative flair that children can easily identify with and remember. Here is a warm and delightful lesson teaching young and old that we aren’t ever really alone and reminding children (and adults!) that when we are loved beyond anything we can imagine. “People who love each other are always connected by a very special string, made of love. Even though you can’t see it with your eyes, you can feel it deep in your heart, and know that you are always connected to the ones you love.”
The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart (Ages 9-12)
The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise: Five years. That’s how long Coyote and her dad, Rodeo, have lived on the road in an old school bus, criss-crossing the nation. It’s also how long ago Coyote lost her mom and two sisters in a car crash.
Coyote hasn’t been home in all that time, but when she learns that the park in her old neighborhood is being demolished―the very same park where she, her mom, and her sisters buried a treasured memory box―she devises an elaborate plan to get her dad to drive 3,600 miles back to Washington state in four days…without him realizing it.
Seven Clues to Home by Gae Polisner and Nora Raleigh Baskin (Ages 8-12)
Seven Clues to Home: When you’ve lost what matters most, how do you find your way back home? Joy Fonseca is dreading her 13th birthday, dreading being reminded again about her best friend Lukas’s senseless death on this day, one year ago—and dreading the fact he may have heard what she accidentally blurted to him the night before. Or maybe she’s more worried he didn’t hear. Either way, she’s decided: she’s going to finally open the first clue to their annual birthday scavenger hunt Lukas left for her the morning he died, hoping the rest of the clues are still out there. If they are, they might lead Joy to whatever last words Lukas wrote, and toward understanding how to grab onto the future that is meant to be hers.