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Helping Children Cope with Grief

Explaining the death of a loved one to a child under the age of 12 makes for a difficult conversation.

It’s a lot for their young minds to take in, so should be done with great care to make them feel loved and safe.

The best way to help a child facing the loss of a loved one, will differ depending on their age.

One thing both children and adults need to aid in the grieving process is connection. For a child, having other caring people that they are comfortable with, will help give them the confidence to express how they are feeling, and to know that they are being supported during this difficult and confusing time.

Pre-schoolers will struggle with the permanence of death, and due to their creative thinking, may believe that the deceased person or pet may become alive again and that this is just temporary. They have a very literal way of thinking so using the correct language is important.

For example, using words like passed away or gone may leave them confused, whereas using terminology such as dead or death, will allow them to better understand what is going on.

Here are some practical ways to help your child through grief and loss:

  • Let them know who will be taking care of them;
  • Give them lots of hugs;
  • Read children’s books about death;
  • Over time, share that death is a part of life, using examples like plants or insects;
  • Understand that they may have changes in sleep patterns and eating, be patient with these changes;
  • Draw a picture with them to take to the funeral.
  • Keep routines the same (as much as possible) so they have familiarity.
  • If you are concerned about how your child is handling (or not handling!) their grief, book an appointment with a psychologist experienced in supporting children.

Children that are of school age (under 12) have a more advanced understanding of death but may still struggle with the permanency of this great loss.

Pay attention to their wishes as to whether they want to attend the funeral; if they do choose not to attend, they can always visit the grave at a later date, or be shown the urn that has been chosen.

Common feelings from children in this age bracket can include feelings of guilt, as well as fears and concerns about their own health and safety, as well as that of other loved ones.  These thoughts may manifest into anxiety so keep the communication open and offer plenty of reassurance to the child.

Here are some ways to support school aged children:

  • Talk about the loved one;
  • Ask them to share their feelings with you, and whatever they share should be respected and heard;
  • Stay close, the child will need connection. Separating the child from their closest caregiver at this time would be deeply upsetting;
  • Be honest with them and answer their questions to the best of your ability;
  • Implement fun into their day;
  • Create a memory box together, using photos and memorabilia.

Be mindful that change is scary for children, so showering them with the reassurance that they are safe will be hugely beneficial in their healing process.