Inside: Four ways to help your child cope with loss and grief. Also, a list of books about death for children, remembering loved ones, and grief books for kids.
Several years ago we suffered a loss in our family. After years of trying and hoping, we were ready to welcome our baby girl into the world. She was born only two weeks early, yet, she was never meant to be fully a part of our world.
Our daughter inherited variations on the RYR-1 gene from both my husband and me. We didn’t know we were both carriers of this rare gene and the fact we both had it, is rarer still. Because she inherited both copies, she had a severe condition and passed away on her original due date. Two weeks is all we got with our sweet girl.
Even as my husband and I buckled under our own grief, we had a 6-year-old boy at home wondering when his baby sister would come home.
How could we begin to explain that when he met her, he would also have to say goodbye?
We couldn’t begin to imagine what to say to him.
Just like you may have to explain why a grandparent won’t come to visit again, why a pet didn’t come back from the vet, and even perhaps why a sibling or parent died.
So, what do you do? Some of it depends on your child’s age, but psychologists agree that being open and honest is best for children.
The younger the child, the less detail you will give, but you still have to explain in simple and direct terms what happened.
Four Ways to Help Children Cope with Grief
1. Be a Sanctuary for Your Child’s Emotions
Talking about death with children is so hard.
- It feels like you are taking away their innocence.
- It feels like you aren’t protecting them.
- It feels like you are causing them (even more) pain.
But if you think about it, when there is a loss in the family — or the loss of your child’s friend or pet, their world is already shattered. They are already feeling pain and loss, even if they don’t have the words to describe it. If you don’t create a safe place for them to express their feelings — where will they go with those feelings? If you don’t explain what death is or what happened to a grandparent, what will they imagine?
You are their sanctuary*, you are their safe place. You are the person they can express how they feel and what they are thinking — their worries and fears.
The best way to be a safe place for your child to grieve is to tell them what happened in a timely manner.
“A sad thing happened. Grandma died today.”
And then reassure them that all feelings are welcome in response to that sad thing.
“It’s okay to be sad, I’m sad too.”
Immediately establish that expressing how they feel is okay. And they may not be sad right away and that’s okay too. They may be mad or confused. Whatever they feel, the important thing is to tell them that it is okay.
*note: There may be times when you can’t be everything to your child when you yourself are grieving. That’s okay. Be gentle with yourself. And when I say “you” I mean any caregiver, mother, father, grandparent. When “you” can’t be there emotionally, maybe your partner or someone else who is close with your child can be. It could also be a good idea to find a place where your child can get grief counseling in the form of play therapy. There are several non-profits around the country that offer support for grieving children, you can find some here: National Alliance for Grieving Children.
Be with your child in their grief. Know that it’s okay to grieve in front of them. I don’t burden my son with all of my grief. But if he sees me crying, I tell him why. It gives him space for his grief as well.
“It is okay to feel sad or mad. I feel sad too. We will all feel sad for a long time. We will feel happy again, too. It’s okay to cry.”
The best thing to do is to be with them in their grief. Stay with them. Hold them. Don’t let them feel alone in it.
2. How to Talk to Your Child About Death: Explain Death Simply and Clearly
They say that when you are faced with trauma or disaster look for the helpers (source Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood pbs.org).
We would have drowned in our grief if it weren’t for the helpers — the doctors, nurses, pastors, women from my mom’s group — the people outside of your family who stepped in and truly took care of us.
One of those helpers for us was a Child Life Specialist who spoke to us about how to tell our son about our daughter’s condition.
Talking with her was the most authentic conversation I will ever have with a complete stranger. I am forever grateful for her compassion, her steadfastness, and yet, her frankness.
Tears streamed down our faces as she told us that as much as we want to protect our son, it is best to be as open and honest as possible. And even though we couldn’t imagine breaking his heart in this way, everything she said rang true.
She said, be as factual as possible. Tell the truth in simple terms.
Why? Because otherwise, a child’s brain tries to fill in the gaps of what you haven’t told them.
Death is abstract enough without us talking about it in vague and clouded terms. Without understanding the finality of death children may wonder if their loved one may come back or wake up.
Without understanding what happens when someone dies, children may imagine that it was somehow their fault.
For our 6-year-old son, she put it in terms that were clear and heartbreaking:
“The brain controls the body. It makes the muscles move, makes your lungs breathe, and makes you able to run and jump. Your sister’s brain and body are broken. The brain isn’t telling the body to do the things it should do. When the body breaks and the doctors can’t fix it, the body stops working and stops breathing. The heart stops beating and the brain stops working. The body dies.”
How detailed you get depends on your child’s age. In the book, How Do We Tell the Children? A Step by Step Guide for Helping Children and Teens Cope When Someone Dies, the authors explain that using terms like “passed away” or “left us” is confusing for children, they may think the person has taken a trip, or worse, abandoned them.
The authors say to explain what death means in clear and simple terms like (pg 174):
- A person’s body has stopped working and won’t work anymore.
- The body won’t do any of the things it used to do: it won’t talk, move, see, or hear; none of the parts work.
Here are some children’s books that also help explain death in concrete ways (referral):
This book is very factual and covers many situations in which a person may die. It also clearly explains what dead means and differentiates from sleeping and different feelings about death. Because it does cover many situations I did skim over some that were not relevant for us. This is good for an older child who has a scientific curiosity about death.
This book explains death in simple and clear, yet gentle terms. This book talks about the idea that death is a natural part of life and the kinds of feelings a child may have after they have lost someone they love. Good for young children.
This is a good book for toddlers and older children alike. It explains death, loss, and coping in a simple and comforting way.
3. Welcome Your Child’s Questions About Death and Beyond
After my son’s initial grief, he had many questions. And he still does from time to time. Curiosity is a natural part of childhood. Whenever he has these questions, I make space for them.
“Does my brain work?”
“Did that happen to me when I was a baby?”
“Why can’t the doctors fix it?”
“Does everybody die?”
“Will I die?”
“Will you die?”
“When will you die?”
“Where do you go when you die?”
Meet those questions with honest, but reassuring answers.
“Yes, everyone dies, but most people get to live a long and healthy life.”
“I don’t know why the doctors couldn’t fix it. I wish they could have, I know you wish they could have and they wish they could have too. Everyone wants that. It makes me feel sad. We can only let her know we love her still.”
How you answer that last question, where do you go when you die, depends on your beliefs. Children may have their own ideas about the afterlife as well. Welcome those discussions.
If you talk about a place like Heaven or something similar children may ask things like — If they are in Heaven, why can’t they come back? Why can’t they visit? It’s important to differentiate the death of the body from the death of the soul, spirit, memory, love, or whatever you believe or your child believes lives on after physical death.
This book shares many different ideas and beliefs about life after death. “Where does the wind go when we can’t see it moving things? It goes somewhere else.”
In simple terms it covers ideas like reincarnation, heaven, living in the stars, and going into the ground to give new life to trees and flowers: “And some believe that a little bit of life stays behind. Even when the body is gone, people remember and feel the life, still loving the life deep inside their hearts.”
4. Help Your Child Cope By Sharing Memories of Your Loved One
Find ways as a family to remember your loved one. Perhaps it’s planting a tree, having a special picture book all about grandma, having a special day you remember them, sending off balloons or Chinese lanterns once a year, planting forget-me-nots — anything that connects your family to your loved one who has passed.
Here are some picture books that focus on remembering and staying connected to loved ones after they are gone. We especially loved the Invisible String, which is such a reassuring book for children in general about being loved and connected with their loved ones.
People who love each other are always connected by a very special String made of love. Even though you can’t see it with your eyes, you can feel it with your heart and know that you are always connected to everyone you love.” -The Invisible String
Here are some additional resources for grieving children: