Helping children with grief and loss
Losing a loved one is incredibly difficult for anyone, no matter their age. For children, the death of a parent or loved one will bring about strong emotions. The support of adults around them is essential for grieving children, and our article below contains practical advice on how to be understanding and supportive during a difficult time.
Talking about grief
When talking about death, be clear and open. Use plain, simple language. Euphemisms like ‘passed away’ or ‘gone to sleep’ can be confusing, so be caring but stick to direct language. For example, “I have sad news to tell you. Grandpa died today.” This leaves no space for interpretation and ensures children understand what has happened.
Once you have delivered the news, allow the child time to process it, and give them space to ask questions and express emotions. When they are upset, reassure them. If the person who has died is their mother or father, keep in mind that the death of a parent can be extremely unsettling and can shift your child’s sense of security enormously. They may worry that other loved ones or family members will also pass away. Whilst you can’t promise that this won’t ever happen, help them to feel safe by reassuring them that there is a plan in place.
Helping children understand death
Depending on their age, children will grieve differently. Children under the age of six are not able to fully comprehend the concept of death, which is why they may quickly switch from appearing sad or upset to wanting to play. This is called ‘puddle jumping’. They also may not understand that death is permanent, and may think that the loved one will come back if they are well behaved or eat their vegetables.
Although they may not initially react as you expected to the death of a loved one, children may start to grieve later, with sudden outbursts, tantrums or changes in their usual behaviour. Or, the way they deal with grief may not be so obvious. If you’re unsure how your child is processing their grief, spend time with them and look for clues in the way they act. Creative activities such as drawing, painting and crafting can be especially useful when helping children with grief.
School age children do understand the permanence of death, but they may still have lots of questions. Create a space where they feel safe to express their emotions, which can range from anxiety to fear to numbness. Reassure them that any emotion expressed is normal and acceptable.
Coping with grief day to day
For children, creating clear boundaries is as important during times of grief as ever. Children may misbehave as a result of grief, but be clear that the death of a loved one is not an excuse for bad behaviour. Putting solid expectations in place is part of helping children with grief. Showing them that they are accountable for their actions, no matter the reason why they feel the way they do, can help young people feel a sense of security, which is much needed when grieving.
Although children grieve differently to adults, they will take cues from parents and carers. Avoid inflicting your own grief and emotions on the child and allow them to grieve in their own way and feel out their own emotions.
Practical measures for helping with grief
If you know that a loved one is going to be passing away soon, consider creating a memory box. A memory box is a collection of objects that remind the child of their loved one and times they have spent together. For example, a memory box could contain photographs, items reminiscent of day trips spent together, or handwritten notes. The objects should be completely personal as they can forge an important link between the child and the person who has died.
Remember that young children may not fully understand the concept of death. Although death is a common theme in children’s cartoons and books, experiencing it first-hand is different. Making the child feel safe will give them the space to begin processing their emotions. Part of this is acknowledging the child’s grief, and reassuring them that it is normal to feel angry, guilty, sad – a whole range of emotions.
Informing the child’s school is recommended. Let their teachers know what has happened and whether they can provide extra support. This helps the school to understand any changes in your child’s behaviour and allows necessary adjustments to be made.
Guide your child in saying goodbye. This could mean attending memorial services, or rituals like lighting candles or planting a tree. You could also involve your child in your religious or spiritual practices relating to death, and sharing how this works. When it comes to funeral services, help your child understand what to expect by explaining each step to them in advance.
Talking about the person who has died and sharing happy memories will help your child feel connected to them, and will bring about positive emotions. Don’t avoid the topic of death or try to change the subject when your child mentions the person who has died.
Access support. Coping with the loss of a loved one can have an impact on your child’s mental health as well as your own. There are organisations and resources that can help guide you both through this, such as Child Bereavement UK.
How to pick a funeral director
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Documents and certificates
Certificates you will need to enable you to start arranging the funeral and sorting out the affairs of the person who has died.
Further Reading: Arranging a funeral
Read about how funerals are arranged and what services you can expect to get.