The loss of someone dear is tough to process, no matter your age. Grief can be even harder for kids, as they’re grappling with understanding the concept of death. Here’s how to tell your child about the death of a loved one and help them process the loss.
1. Use clear, direct language
You might feel drawn to tell your little one that someone “passed away” or that you “lost them.” But it helps kids understand and cope with death better if you use concrete words. You might gently say, “I have some sad news to share. Grandpa died last night.”
And because kids pick up on emotions and conversation more than we realize sometimes, it’s best to not delay in sharing the news. Being honest and forthright allows your child to trust you and better cope with what’s happening.
2. Go slow and answer questions
Take time to help your child process the news at their own pace. They might ask questions, be angry, cry, or not show much of a reaction at all. Be there to comfort them with words and physical closeness. Depending on their age, you might even have to repeat the news to help them process it.
As kids grasp the idea that death happens to everyone, they might fear that you or someone else might die too. Offer them reassurance and comfort while remaining honest.
3. Prepare them for events and changes
You might choose to have your child attend visitation services or the funeral (or you might have them skip it). No matter how you plan to grieve with them, explain what they will see and experience. You might explain, “We’ll go to the funeral home where there will be people sharing stories about grandma. Grandma will be in her casket and we will sing and talk about her life. You can hold my hand the whole time.”
If there will be a change in their routine, such as if grandpa picked them up from school, explain who will be handling that from now on so they know what to expect.
4. Embrace emotions and put words to feelings
Grieving in front of your child shows them that it’s healthy to show emotions and mourn the loss of someone. Try to put your feelings and their feelings into words, such as, “I know you’re feeling sad, and I am too. Aunt Julie was a special person and we loved her so much.”
Rather than pushing feelings aside, allow yourself and your child to express emotions. When we allow for feelings and validate them, both all better process life’s challenges.
5. Be sure they know it’s not their fault
Children of all ages, especially those between ages four and seven, tend to see themselves at the center of the world. Your child might worry that they did something to cause the death, such as thinking poorly of an uncle right before he died. If you sense that they may feel responsible, be clear by saying something such as, “Uncle Frank had an illness that made his body stop working. There was nothing anyone could do and it’s no one’s fault.”
6. Give your child a role
Include your child in the mourning process by inviting them to pick a song for the service, read a poem, or look through photos of your loved one. Offer them the choice to take part or not, and help them to remember your loved one by sharing memories and stories together.
7. Seek extra support
Grieving takes time — and sometimes, extra resources. Depending on how close your child was to the person who died and their age, you might enlist the help of a support group, counselor, pediatrician, or child therapist. If you notice signs such as loss of appetite, sleep problems, or angry outbursts, consider taking this step sooner than later. Helping your child cope with the death ensures they can process it in a healthy way.
- Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. The Whole-Brain Child. Random House, Inc. 2011. Print.
- D’Arcy Lyness, PhD. “When a Loved One Dies: How to Help Your Child.” KidsHealth. Nemours. September 2021. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/death.html.
- Deborah Serani Psy.D. “The Do’s and Don’ts of Talking With a Child About Death.” Psychology Today. December 4, 2016. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/two-takes-depression/201612/the-dos-and-donts-talking-child-about-death.
- “How to talk to your children about the death of a loved one.” Unicef Parenting. Unicef. https://www.unicef.org/parenting/child-care/how-talk-your-children-about-death-loved-one.
- Lisa Milbrand. “A Step-By-Step Guide to Talking to Kids About Death and Grief.” Parents. Dotdash Meredith. May 25, 2022. https://www.parents.com/toddlers-preschoolers/development/social/talking-to-kids-about-death/.
- “How To Tell Children That Someone Has Died.” KidsHealth. The Paediatric Society of New Zealand and Starship Foundation. July 23, 2021. https://www.kidshealth.org.nz/how-tell-children-someone-has-died.