Camp Monarch

How to Help a Grieving Child

Helping a child who has experienced the death of a loved one can feel like a daunting task.  Many of us shy away from talking to children about death and dying because we don’t want to scare or upset them.  However, when we let children know that it’s okay to talk about death and about how it feels to lose someone they loved, we can help them work through their grief in a safe, supportive manner.

When talking to children about death, it’s important to consider the developmental age of the child.  Preschoolers and young school-age children won’t necessarily understand that death is permanent, instead viewing it as something reversible, impersonal, or as something that they can escape.  Because children at this age are concrete thinkers, it’s important to provide simple explanations with specific examples.  In the book Explaining Death to Children, Dr. Earl A. Grollman suggests explaining death in terms of the absence of familiar functions: when people die, they do not breathe, eat, talk, think, or feel anymore.

Accurate words
With young children, it’s especially important to use accurate words to describe death.  For example, telling children that “Grandpa went to sleep,” rather than “Grandpa died,” can be confusing, and may engender a fear of going to bed or taking naps.  Likewise, telling children that “Aunt Patty went away” may increase separation anxiety: “Daddy went away to work – maybe he won’t come back either.”  Using clear, age-appropriate language when referring to death and avoiding euphemisms such as “passed away” or “resting in peace” can reduce confusion and encourage children to share their own thoughts and feelings about the death of their loved one.

Because young children are still developing cognitively and emotionally, they may not be able to use words to express their feelings and fears.  Children may act out their feelings through play (such as pretending to be dead), through artwork (drawing pictures of people dying or of the deceased loved one), or through other avenues that are familiar to them.  It’s important to recognize that this is part of the normal grieving process for children, and should not be discouraged.  In fact, this is an ideal time to talk to children about their feelings, and help them put words to their emotions.

Older children and teenagers are better able to comprehend that death is permanent and that every living thing will eventually die – including themselves.  Adolescents are able to think about life and death in philosophical terms, and address issues regarding their own existence.  Some adolescents test their own limits, taking unnecessary risks in order to establish a sense of control over their mortality.  As with younger children, it’s important to maintain open communication with older children and adolescents, and to validate their feelings in response to their loss.

More help
It’s normal for a child to experience a range of emotions following the death of a loved one, and he or she may continue to have those feelings for an extended period of time.  However, some children have a particularly difficult time coping with their grief and loss, and may benefit from speaking with a trained professional.  Children who demonstrate severe anxiety, depression, anger, substance abuse, oppositional or withdrawn behavior, or who have significant, long-lasting changes in school or social performance may particularly need additional support, and their caregivers are strongly encouraged to contact a helping agency, such as Children’s Support Services of Covenant Hospice, for professional consultation.

Many children also find comfort in being with other children who have experienced the loss of a loved one.  Covenant Hospice is proud to sponsor Camp Monarch, a series of bereavement camps offered to children in our hospice families and our communities throughout the year. Camp Monarch creates a safe and supportive environment for children to share their emotions, learning important coping skills, and establish connections with peers who have had similar experiences.

Covenant Hospice is proud to support children and their families during their time of grief.  For additional information about grief and loss in children, or for help supporting a grieving child, please contact your local Covenant Hospice branch or go to the Covenant Hospice website.

by Lee McDonough, LCSW, MPH


One Response to “How to Help a Grieving Child”

  1. Thank you for sharing this. As a parent I know that I have struggled with trying to help my kids cope with grief. It hurts your heart to see them in pain…and all you want to do is make things better. Unfortunately they don’t come with a “users manual”…so sometimes you feel like you’re just “winging it” Having some tools to use like the activities you discussed would make it a little easier.

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