Do you know what to say to a grieving child? It is not easy, but this article is about just that – What to say to a grieving child, with tips on conversation openers, words to use, recommended children’s grief support books, and how to prepare them for funerals.
Your Earliest Grief Experience
Can you remember the first death loss you experienced as a child?
It may have been a beloved pet, or a grandparent, another relative, a friend, a parent, or a sibling.
Do you remember feeling included in the family’s grieving process?
Did people talk to you openly about the loss?
Were you encouraged to ask questions about it?
Did the adults in your life cry in front of you?
Did you attend the funeral?
The Canadian national statistics of childhood bereavement are shocking. It is estimated that 1 in 14 children will experience the death of a parent or sibling by the time they turn 18. Almost 40,000 will experience the death of a parent or sibling who lives in their home. Despite this number, our society is ill-equipped to support children who are either facing a loss or have experienced a loss.
If you have grieving children in your life, they need to feel heard too. As adults, we think we should protect them from pain and sadness, but they don’t feel protected. Instead, they feel excluded. When the adults in their family are clearly suffering, they deserve to feel safe and secure in the knowledge that they are included, that they belong.
By inventing stories, we simply end up confusing them. Many kids instinctively know when they’re being lied to, and then they may make up their own explanations using their fertile imagination. This will lead to further confusion and uncertainty in the future. Too often, adults try to protect them from the truth, and if we are not honest with them, then we risk losing their trust.
So, what is the solution?
Children are generally curious about facts, and they can often handle more than we think. As long as the message is delivered kindly, and we encourage them to ask questions, even young children will learn to accept the pain of loss. Having open and honest dialogues will help you, and them, in the end.
Supporting Grieving Children
- “I’m wondering what you understand about what happened to Grandma?”
- “Is there anything you’ve heard that you don’t understand?”
- “Do you have any questions you would like to ask?”
- “Are you having some big feelings that you would like to talk about?”
Words to use:
Young children respond well to concrete facts, so death can be most effectively explained by using simple words and definitions. Eg. “When Grandma dies, her body will stop working, and it will never work again. She will not feel hungry, or cold, or lonely, ever again. She will have no pain at all. We will miss having Grandma with us, but we will still love her and talk about her. We have lots of happy memories of the times we spent with her, and we will keep those memories forever.”
Try not to use euphemisms for death and dying, as these only contribute to doubt and confusion. Also, remember that young children often think of the head and the body as separate entities, so make sure they understand that, when the body stops working, the head does too.
How to deal with big feelings:
Since grief is a whole-body response to loss, it often involves an overwhelming mixture of emotions and even physical feelings. For children, this can be confusing and frightening, so it is helpful to encourage open conversation about feelings. This can be facilitated by using roleplay, reading story books (See suggested reading list) or playing games such as Jenga.
Any game which initiates conversation can be used or adapted to suit the situation. Whether a child is about to experience a significant loss, or the death has already occurred, it is important to maintain daily routines as much as possible. This will help them to maintain a feeling of security and predictability.
When everything around them seems to be all wrong, they will take comfort from the fact that certain routines and expectations have NOT changed.
Children’s Picture Books about Grief & Loss:
- The Color Monster by Anna Llenas
- When Dinosaurs Die by Marc & Laurie Krasny Brown
- Duck, Death & the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch
- Old Pig by Margaret Wild
- The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
Can young children understand a death loss? “Anyone old enough to love is old enough to grieve” – Dr Alan Wolfelt
It is not the age of a child which dictates how much they will understand or how well they will handle a death loss. Instead, it depends on a number of factors;
- What is their level of maturity?
- Have they had previous experience of a death loss, and how was that handled by the adults around them?
- Do/did they have a close relationship with the person?
- Are they willing and able to vocalize their feelings?
- Do they feel safe enough to share their thoughts and fears?
By talking to grieving children with kindness and honesty, and giving them opportunities to ask lots of questions, we can support them in a meaningful way. When they are older, and they encounter grief again, they will be better prepared and more able to navigate the process.
Children & Funerals:
Funerals can provide an opportunity for the whole family to mourn together. Prepare your child in advance for what the body will look and feel like, if there is to be an open casket:
- Explain to them how the church will look/feel/smell like.
- In the case of cremation, prepare them for the way the casket will disappear from view, and there may be a rumbling noise from behind the screen.
- Talk about who else might be there (eg. family & friends)
- Explain that people will probably be crying because they are feeling sad.
- Explain the importance of saying goodbye
- Encourage them to ask any questions they are wondering about.
- Tell them who they can turn to ( eg. a family friend) during the funeral if they are needing some comfort.
What To Say To A Grieving Child
A grieving child can be heartbreaking, but with the right tools, you can help the child make more sense of their grieving world and ultimately deal with death and loss in a constructive and meaningful way.
Allow Me To Help You
If you are unsure how to speak to the children in your life about death and grief, please reach out. I will be happy to help.
Book a 30-minute complimentary discovery call directly through this website so we can discuss your needs.