How To Help Your Child Process Grief

As a mom, I want my child to have a perfect childhood. With many fond memories and cherished times filling the family photo album. As much as we want to protect our children, life still happens. When a loved one dies, you want to wrap your arms around your son or daughter and make everything better. You want to dry their tears and take away their pain.

How do you help a child process death in a healthy, constructive way ensuring understanding and healing? Helping your child during such a challenging time can help to develop coping skills lasting a lifetime. Janice Paton, of Kidz Grieve Too, offers these ways to help your child cope.

3 Tips To Cope With Grief

  1. Have a conversation with your child about the importance of sharing their feelings. Being careful not to tell them how they should feel but instead, listen and repeat their feelings back to them. Let them know you hear them and understand. If they don’t want to open up to you, encourage them to talk to a close friend or family member. It is important to let their emotions be expressed.
  2. Teach your child how to use breathing techniques to calm the body, mind, and spirit. Depending on the age of the child, you can use bubbles to show how to inhale and exhale. Have your child inhale deeply through their nose and then exhale slowly allowing a large bubble to form from the bubble wand. Ask them how they feel and repeat the process.
  3. Allow your child to choose an outlet they enjoy when their grief gets difficult to handle. Does your child like to write? Give them a special journal to write down their feelings. Or they may enjoy exercise, music, nature, or art. Even hobbies like fishing can create an environment allowing your child a way to relieve the stress from the loss of a loved one. Encourage your child to choose what works best for them and give them the time to do so.

5 Things You Should Never Say

Well intentioned friends and family members may use words of comfort to help your child.  Let them know to avoid the following words.

  1. “Why are you still sad?  You should be over this by now.
  2. “Don’t cry!  It will be O.K.”
  3. “Now you’re the man/woman of the house.” Taking on the responsibility of the family member who died is a heavy burden. Children need to be children and should not have to take on this role.
  4. “Just don’t think about it.”
  5. “You’ll be fine.”

Often in times of grief, people feel awkward by not knowing what to say. They want to be loving and helpful, but these words can be harmful. Telling a child not to cry may interfere with their grieving process and lead to a suppression of their feelings. A child may learn to hide their emotions, but they do not go away. Unresolved emotions can come up years later, especially when another death occurs. Another loss may trigger painful emotions which have not been addressed. Words are powerful and need to be thought out before saying them to a child.

Warning Signs

As you work with your child through such a difficult time, be sure to watch out for excessive expressions of emotions. If they are extremely sad, exhibit anxiety and anger, take note. If you find they are numb to what is happening, this should also be cause for concern.

Other Signs:

  • Eating and sleeping changes
  • Learning and attention issues with school performance
  • Irritability, arguing, fighting
  • Withdraw from family and friends
  • Activities that once brought them joy no longer does

In such cases, Janice recommends seeking grief support or counseling services to help your child understand and process their emotions in a safe environment. These services support your child based on their age and development by offering them the assistance needed to cope with their grief in a healthy and constructive way.

Death of a Pet

When a beloved family pet dies, grief is part of the process of loss. Use this opportunity to teach your child about what happens when someone dies. Explain the different emotions of grief and how it is a normal part of life.  

  • There are different ways children can be a part of end of life care or a special service honoring their pet. In the case of end of life care, paw prints of the pet can be captured on paper using paints. Allow your child to take part in painting. Give them the art work to save as a keepsake.
  • Use this time to help your child say goodbye. It is important to encourage them to talk to their pet and give them affection. You can model this behavior by showing your child it is okay to pet and love them. This will help your child feel safe in doing so as well. 
  • Children can also write a special message to be buried with the pet. If the pet is being cremated, the note can accompany the pet when the cremation is done. In this way, the special note will be included with the pet’s remains.
  • Giving children an opportunity to speak at the service helps them honor the pet. This offers an opportunity to gain closure and allows the child to express their true feelings.
  • Give them choices. Ask them what they want to do. This helps to offer the child a sense of control in a situation where it seems they have no control.

 Misconceptions of Grief

Grief has a timeline. (False)

–       Everyone’s grief is different and unique. Grief never ends, it just changes over time.

Children grieve like adults. (False)

–       Children process grief based on their development. Each stage of development has a different understanding of death. Children will re-grieve* the death of their loved ones as they mature in age and development. 

*Re-grieve: The process by which a child experiences loss at a young age and then exhibits signs of grieving again when he/she is older.  

Grief is only experienced after death occurs. (False)

–   Grief can be experienced before the death of a loved one. As soon as we become aware of an impending death, we can experience grief. This grief is called anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief may consist of feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed. This is normal grief which starts before the person has actually died. Examples: An illness or disease like cancer.       

Helping Children Attend A Funeral

Why is a funeral or memorial service important? It offers children closure allowing them to say goodbye. Attending a viewing or seeing the cremated remains (urn) helps your child to recognize the reality of the death.

Preparation is beneficial because children will know what to expect. Explain what happens during the service. Provide choices for how they can take part. Perhaps they can have attendees sign the guest book. Or greet people as they arrive. Or stand by the pictures sharing the stories behind them. Offering them choices gives them control, even if they choose not to attend.

During the service, be sure to be attentive to your child and answer their questions when asked. Children need to know they are not alone in their grief and including them in the service helps them to feel included rather than excluded.

If the family member who died is close to you, you may be dealing with your own grief and find yourself overwhelmed. In this case, consider assigning a family member or close friend to attend to your children. Janice Paton also provides this service giving your children someone who they can relate to and who understands their feelings.

Benefits of Grief Support:

Grief support is where children in the same age group can share their feelings in a safe environment. Children are taught positive coping skills they can use to help them process and understand their grief.

One parent told Janice how much grief support helped her son. Her son now talks about the death of his loved one, his feelings, and shares stories about his special person who died. Before, he would not talk about his loss. Recently, he participated in a ceremony honoring his loved one. The mother told Janice, her son feels safe talking about his grief since he started grief support. 

For more information about funeral grief support services and helping your child understand grief, contact Janice Paton.

Recommended Books:

Ages- 3+

The Invisible String By Patrice Karst

A message that though we may be separated by death, love is the unending connection that binds us all.

Ages- 5+

Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children

By Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen

Ages- 13 -17

Straight Talk About Death for Teenagers: How to Cope with Losing Someone You Love

By Earl A. Grollman

Janice Paton is a Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS), and a former early childhood education teacher with professional experience spreading over 10 years. Throughout her career, she has provided child life services in family homes and school settings working with children, adolescents, adults, and families. Janice’s specialty is providing grief support services. Offering grief support allows her to provide children and adolescents with positive coping skills and strategies to assist them with their grief journey. She incorporates various methods of creative activities, which she uses in her grief work, such as art, writing, play, breath work, and mindfulness.

Janice holds a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, certifications as a certified child life specialist and a certified healing touch practitioner. She is the founder of Kidz Grieve Too and provides funeral homes with grief support services for children and families they serve. Janice is also a senior grief facilitator for Suncoast Kids Place, which provides grief support to children, adolescents, and adults. Visit, e-mail Janice at [email protected] or call 813-309-6673. 

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2 Responses to How To Help Your Child Process Grief

  1. Petr May 16, 2018 at 6:21 pm #

    This is really great Evelyn. Lots of good advice here. I’m from the North of England where just ‘getting on with it’ – not talking about feelings- is seen as a virtue. It is not.

    I really recommend you listen to this true story from my favourite podcast (The Moth). It’s beautiful and moving:

    • Evelyn Mann
      Evelyn Mann May 16, 2018 at 7:47 pm #

      Thanks so much, Pete. I listened to the story you shared on The Moth. That was powerful. So true how children have the capacity to understand much better than we do sometimes as adults. And in this little girl’s understanding, I’d like to think she found healing and acceptance of her loss in ways we adults can learn from. Thank you for sharing. Smiles, Evelyn

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