Grief can be confusing, especially to a child. As a parent or close adult walking alongside a child grieving the death of a loved one, the goal isn’t to avoid sadness but to help them process it in a healthy way.
For young children, the permanency of death is difficult to grasp. For kids and teens of any age, learning how to cope with grief is greatly influenced by your example and your openness to help them process. Consider these tips from hospice experts and grief therapists to help your kids navigate the death of someone close to them.
Be truthful, clear, and age-appropriate.
It’s easy to want to soften the reality of death, but using phrases like “Grandpa went to sleep” or “We lost Grandma today” can confuse them and create fear. You don’t need to explain complex medical terms, but clarity helps them understand, even in the hospice stage preceding death.
For example, for a grandparent with dementia, you might say, “Grandpa is very sick and might say things we don’t understand.” or “Grandma isn’t able to talk to us, but we can still talk to her.”
After death, you can express your own sadness when you tell them: “Grandma died today. I’m going to miss her very much.” In the case of an unexpected or sudden death, it’s impossible to prepare. Find reassuring language, whether it’s relying on your faith (“I’m thankful they are at peace now.”) or remembering the good memories with fondness (“I’m so glad we had those fun vacation memories last year.”).
Listen and answer questions.
After you tell your child their loved one died, give them time to process the news. Ask if they have any questions and let them know you’re there to answer their questions any time. They may not have words or tears yet, so be patient and give them time. Don’t diminish their grief by saying “don’t cry,” but let them know it’s normal to be sad when you won’t see someone anymore. It’s fine to say “I don’t know” to their questions, so they know it’s okay to sit with some uncertainty.
Share your own feelings.
Children will observe how you deal with your own grief and possibly mimic you. Tell them explicitly how you feel so they don’t have to guess or feel the need to hide their feelings. “I’m sad about Grandma dying. I’m going to miss my weekly tea visits with her.” Reassure them that “It’s okay to cry or feel lonely; let’s talk about it.”
Encourage healthy grief expressions.
Be patient if your child grieves by responding with anger, lashing out, fear, anxiety, or clamping up. Younger children may want to draw a picture, listen to music, or do a craft to express their grief. Look through photo albums and talk about your loved one. Many children’s books on death and grief exist that are helpful to read together. Expect grief to pop up over a period of time, not just immediately after loss.
Prepare them for the funeral and what’s to come.
Individual families should decide on a case-by-case basis if they want young children to attend a funeral. Many times it’s a healthy way to find closure, but don’t force it if the child doesn’t want to attend. Explain the service (songs, prayers, people talking about your loved one), the casket and graveside (if there is one), and how people will act. Tell them people will be crying, but also sharing happy memories. Let them know you’ll be right there with them or assign a trusted “buddy” to them the day of the funeral.
After a death, family routines may be interrupted. For example, explain that you won’t have weekly dinners at their grandparents anymore. Or, if you were caregiving full-time in the home for a relative in hospice care, let the child know that the medical equipment will be taken away. After a few days or weeks, try to stick to routines as much as possible; children feel secure when they know what to expect.
After the death of someone close to them, children can start to feel anxious or fearful that they will lose a parent or someone else in the family. While you can’t make promises, you can reassure them that they will always be cared for. Try to involve other trusted adults in your child’s life so they feel safe and loved.
Additionally, if you have a religious belief about the afterlife, discuss that with them to provide reassurance or let them know simply that “They live on in our hearts and minds.”
Remember your loved one together.
Express your grief by remembering your loved one in special ways. Celebrate occasions like their birthday at their favorite restaurant or continue traditions that involved them, like baking special Christmas cookies. Plant a tree or flowers in remembrance. Visit the grave site together. Model to your children that it’s okay to talk about your loved one after they’re gone.
Seek outside help when needed.
At times, grief may be too much for you or your children to handle. Don’t be afraid to seek out help from therapists, grief counselors, or support groups. Heart to Heart Hospice provides up to 13 months of compassionate bereavement care from chaplains and bereavement coordinators. You don’t have to be an expert in navigating grief; allow professionals to provide guidance and care for your family.
Ultimately, honesty, clarity, and transparency will help your child grieve. Invite them into the process so they feel secure and open to express their sadness in a healthy way. Discover more signs of grief and ways to specifically help children and teens with loss on pages 54-55 of the Heart to Heart Patient and Family Handbook online.
If you have a loved one with a terminal illness, see if Heart to Heart Hospice serves your area of Michigan, Texas, or Indiana. We provide compassionate comfort care (palliative care) and caregiver support for patients nearing end of life in the home, hospital, or residential care facility.