How to explain death to your child and help them grieve
Losing a loved one or a pet is one of the most difficult experiences a child can go through. And as a parent, explaining death to them and navigating grief can be downright daunting. As much as you likely want to, it’s impossible to take their pain away, but you can help them to cope in healthy ways.
As a therapist, I’ve helped many people navigate loss and have learned a lot of powerful lessons along the way. Here are some tips to help you talk about death and support your child as they grieve.
- Listen to their questions and concerns. Kids are curious creatures that learn by asking questions. Encourage them to ask away and make time and space to answer calmly and reassuringly. Listen to what they say and simply validate their feelings, without trying to fix or distract. You can describe how all living things have a life cycle — we are born, we grow, and eventually, we all die. It’s a natural part of life, and it is not something that they have to feel afraid of.
- Be honest and straightforward. When talking to kids about death, it’s essential that you’re clear and truthful about what has happened. It’s best to use simple language that they can understand and avoid expressions such as saying someone has “passed away” or “gone to sleep,” as they could confuse or frighten your child. You can try explaining the physical changes that happen to the body when someone dies — their body stops working, their heart no longer beats, and they stop breathing, thinking, or feeling. Explain that although death can feel very sad, it is part of the human experience and can happen to animals, plants, and even tiny microorganisms that are too small for us to see.
- Make space for your feelings too. It’s likely that you may be grieving while also supporting your child through this tough time. That’s really hard, but sharing your sadness and grief with your child is okay. Let them know that it’s normal to feel sad and it’s healthy to express any emotions that come up. Demonstrating vulnerability and modeling positive coping methods will feel reassuring for your child and will give a blueprint for how to navigate grief. It can be a healing experience to honor a loved one together by putting up a picture, lighting a candle, sharing stories, or preparing their favorite meal. Think of things you can do together to ensure that your loved one’s memory will live on with you.
- Offer reassurance along the way. Continue reminding your child that you are there to love and support them. Let them know that they will be okay, that in time, it will get easier, and that you will get through this together. Experiencing a death could be scary for the child, especially if the death is unexpected. Check-in on them often by asking how they are adjusting to the change. Don't be afraid to bring up the subject of the loss. Normalizing death can be therapeutic for the whole family.
- Create a safe space for expression. Encourage your child to express whatever feelings come up for them in a safe space. This could mean writing, drawing, talking to a friend, or any other activity that feels good for them. Holding a memorial service for a pet or loved one, or going to a particular physical place you all enjoyed, can also help them express difficult feelings. There are also a lot of great books written for kids about death that you can read together.
Signs and symptoms of grief
Everyone grieves in their own way, but it can be especially challenging for young people to express their emotions. The way they respond to death can look different from adults. They may go from having an emotional outburst to happily playing. Since this can be confusing to navigate, it’s sometimes helpful to know the signs that your child may be grieving:
- Behavioral changes: A grieving child may show changes in their behavior, such as becoming withdrawn, anxious, or easily irritable.
- Changes in sleeping and eating habits: A grieving child may have trouble sleeping or experience nightmares. They may also lose their appetite or overeat.
- Emotional changes: A grieving child may experience a range of emotions, including sadness, anger, guilt, or confusion. They may also have mood swings and may seem more sensitive than usual.
- Physical symptoms: They may complain of physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomach aches, without having any underlying medical conditions.
- Difficulty concentrating: A grieving child may have trouble focusing on schoolwork or other tasks and may seem distracted or forgetful.
It's important to note that not all children will exhibit these signs, and some may express their grief differently. Additionally, these signs may not necessarily indicate grief alone, and other factors such as stress or illness should also be considered.
How extra support can help
Some children may need additional support to cope. Here are some ways in which therapy and coaching can help a child in grief:
- Creating a safe space to express emotions: Children may feel like they can't talk to their family members or friends about their grief for fear of upsetting them or not being understood. A therapist or coach can create a safe, non-judgmental space for the child to express their feelings and thoughts about their loss.
- Providing coping strategies: Grief can be overwhelming and challenging to manage, especially for children who may not have developed the coping skills necessary to deal with strong emotions. A therapist or coach can help a child learn healthy ways to cope with their grief through mindfulness, breathing exercises, or other relaxation techniques.
- Addressing unresolved issues: Sometimes, children may have unresolved issues with the person who passed away or with other family members. A therapist or coach can help the child work through these issues healthily so that they can process their grief more effectively.
- Normalizing the grieving process: Children may feel like they are the only ones experiencing grief, which can make them feel isolated and alone. A therapist or coach can help the child understand that grief is a normal and natural part of the human experience and that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. A support group with other children experiencing loss can be helpful as well.
- Helping the child adjust to changes: A major loss can often lead to significant changes in a child's life, such as moving to a new home or school or changing family dynamics. A therapist or coach can help the child adjust to these changes and develop a sense of resilience and adaptability.
By providing a safe and supportive environment, a therapist or coach can help the entire family process their emotions, learn healthy coping strategies, and ultimately find a path toward healing and growth.
It may sound cliche, but remember that grief is like a wave — the intensity will come and go. Sometimes you’ll feel the calmness of the waves, and other times the waves will come crashing all around. It won’t always make logical sense, but trust that it is completely normal. Give yourself and your child the space and compassion to experience the feelings of loss.
Remember that grief is born from loving greatly, and as painful as it is, your love and what you’ve lost are worth honoring. Practice patience with your child and allow them to ride the waves at their own pace. Moving through this time is never easy, but with empathy and emotional support, you’re instilling a resilience in your child that will last a lifetime.