Insights & Tips to Support Children Through LossAug 14, 2023
By Ilana Shapiro Yahdav
Grief is an emotion that is challenging for adults, it’s no wonder that it’s also incredibly challenging for kids who may also lack the vocabulary and understanding of their feelings. Children greatly benefit from having a trusted grief-informed adult that can model healthy grieving and help them navigate their feelings.
The following lists some tips and insights to support children through loss:
Model Healthy Grieving
One of the best ways to support a child that is grieving is to model healthy grieving. Children are incredibly intuitive and observant. Even when we think they are not listening (or they simply choose to not let us know they hear!) they are often soaking in all their surroundings, especially our words and actions.
This helps teach the child healthy coping tools, helps you process, and creates an emotionally safe space. The Dougy Center shared that there is research stating that “how well a child does after a death is linked to how well the adults in their life are doing.” For those of us that struggle to put our needs first, this is motivation to make sure your emotional needs are met as this is truly the best way to support the littles in your life.
As the airlines always say, “Put on your own oxygen mask first.” You are not able to help others if you’re running on fumes. Make sure that you have support, whether it be from friends and family and/or a professional.
If you need to cry, it’s okay to cry in front of your child and let them know that you too miss the person who died.
Important: do not put your grief on the child. It’s important to stay cognizant of modeling versus heart dumping and emotional hijacking.
Create an emotionally safe space
There really is no ‘right’ time to tell a child about a death of a loved one. This will likely be incredibly challenging for both the person informing the child as well as the child. What is important though, is that the child hear it from someone they know and trust in a place they feel safe (which is why it’s preferable to tell them as soon as possible to control when, where, and how they learn about it). You’d never want your child to hear about it on social media or from people they don’t know. You also want them to hear about it in a place where they can process any and all raw emotions and not have to hold back (i.e. at home with immediate family that they feel comfortable with). It is very important to use clear, concise, simple, and straightforward language. Do not use metaphors. (i.e. Say: Daddy died. Do not say: Daddy went to sleep.)
Be open to different ways of grieving
Let them know that all of their thoughts and feelings are okay. Allow them to grieve in their own way whether that be loudly, quietly, filled with tears, or no tears at all. Some children may need to run around to process the emotion while others may sit quietly with their stuffie. Both are normal.
Provide outlets for self-expression
Children need space to release energy, ask questions, be clingy or standoffish, and process in their own way. Do not discipline or tell them how to behave. This is especially important for younger children who don’t yet have the language skills to try to express what is on their minds and hearts. (Many adults also lack the emotional language skills as well.)
Give them outlets whether it be art, music, creative play, sports, dancing, running, singing, or whatever activity they enjoy. If they create anything, invite them to share, but don't push them to if they seem unwilling.
If your child asks you to play, follow their lead and don’t try to influence the activity. You can learn a lot about what they are feeling by observing how they play. This can in turn help you better support them in areas that they need but are unable to express.
Keep their routine (but allow space for flexibility)
Most children thrive with routine and consistency and this may be a welcome respite from all the change that is likely to happen after a death of a loved one. As much as possible, try to stick to their routine to help give them some semblance of normalcy. Be patient if there are sleep disruptions, tantrums, or regressions, as this is all normal after a loss.
Be a ‘heart with ears’ - Listen Without Judgment
Don’t judge. Don’t interrupt. Don’t try to evaluate or fix. Don’t belittle or try to correct their truth. Don’t emotionally hijack - this is about the child, not you. Don’t tell them how to grieve. Don’t tell them not to cry. Don’t provide unsolicited advice. Don’t change the subject.
Listen. Let them ask as many questions as they need to. Be patient if they repeat the questions a million times or if they seem silly to you. Let them share any and all emotions. Let them share stories and thoughts. Reflect back and/or repeat what you hear them say so that they know they have been heard. This is of paramount importance to their healing (the same as adults!) being acknowledged, validated, and witnessed WITHOUT judgment.
Remember, it is their truth so don’t try to ‘correct’ their facts. What’s important is that they feel heard and validated.
Once children trust that you will listen and understand, they’ll be more likely to come to you when hurting and needing advice.
Be Intentional with your words
It is important to speak openly and honestly about death using concrete and straightforward words. Never say the person went to sleep, otherwise, you will have a child that will never want to sleep again for fear of not waking up. Depending on the age of the child, you can use your discretion on how much detail to go into, but be sure not to lie.
Talk about the person who died
Say their name. Share memories. In fact, sharing your memories and feelings gives your child/children permission and safety to share theirs. Talk about the person so that they can still be a ‘part’ of their life. Make it safe for the child to bring up the person when they want to. This builds trust and sets the groundwork for you to be a safe person for your child to go to in the future with emotional experiences.
If possible, let the child choose some of the person’s stuff to keep. After my father died, I kept a few of his t-shirts and a warm fleece sweatshirt that I wear when I’m feeling really sad and missing him.
You can create traditions together to commemorate the person. This is both healing and connecting. In my family, we always eat pizza on my dad’s deathaversary and birthday. Geographic proximity permitting, we eat pizza at the cemetery next to his headstone. I remember getting choked up the first time my older brother took his son, who is named after my dad, to the cemetery to eat pizza and ‘meet’ our dad. I have not yet had the opportunity to take my children yet as he’s buried on the opposite side of the country. I know when I finally get to, it will be an emotional experience with lots of pizza involved.
Allow the child to attend the funeral, Wake, Shiva, or service if they want to. Allow them to participate when appropriate and feasible. This helps them know that they are a valued and important part of the family and that their feelings matter.
Consider marking important days and inviting children to participate in these activities - whether it’s the deathaversary, diagnosis date, religious day of remembering, or any day that feels emotionally important.
Grief is non-linear and does not follow a timeline
It’s normal and natural for kids to continue to grieve as they grow and develop. It’s normal for kids to act out in different ways. Make sure not to belittle or alienate your child as they navigate their grief maze. Validate and be supportive as possible so that they don’t feel alone.
Seek Additional Support
If you notice your child struggling, don’t hesitate to seek professional support. It is important to find support from grief-informed specialists as not all therapists are trained in grief support, especially for children. The Dougy Center and Kara are great places to start. Both are incredible organizations that support children and provide 1:1 and group support. (Note: Kara also provides support for youth and adults).
Additionally, there are bereavement summer camp programs that can be life-changing as it creates a community of others who have suffered a loss and provides a safe place to learn coping skills and cultivate friendships. Bereavement camps are magical places where kids can be surrounded by others who ‘get it’ who have a significant loss and can learn together how to cope and rebuild their lives. These friendships and skills can have a profound impact on a child's life and how they are able to cope with their loss. Camp Kara, Comfort Zone Camps, and Camp Erin are incredible healing places.
I was fortunate to be able to volunteer at Camp Kara a few years ago and heard one of the counselors describe the children in attendance as, "the luckiest unlucky kids." I couldn't agree more with that sentiment. Bereavement camps are a true gift of healing and community.
Take a Course to help you help support the children in your life
Helping Children With Loss is a 4-week program designed to teach parents and others who work with children, the necessary tools to help children effectively deal with their broken hearts, regardless of loss type. Contact us for more information.
Remember, grief is the normal and natural reaction to a loss of any kind and is also the conflicting feelings around the change or end of any familiar pattern or behavior. Change is hard for adults and can be especially hard for children.
We hope that these suggestions can help you help the children in your life navigate the non-linear grief maze with more ease. In addition, we compiled a list of resources to support children.
Please know we are here for you if any questions or need any additional support.
Develop your personalized grief support action plan with our "Grief & Gratitude" workbook.
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