Grief affects us all. It is one of the most powerful emotions people experience. Whether the loss is a family member, friend, classmate or beloved pet, grieving is hard.  

Children have an especially difficult time dealing with their grief. Fears of separation and the finality of death is a lot to process. While we cannot protect a child from death and the pain it causes, we can play an important role in helping a child feel secure during this most challenging time.

Manage your own emotionsIf possible, the person delivering the sad news should be the person closest to the child, usually a parent or primary caregiver. It is understandable if that person is sad or crying, but they should be in control of their emotions. If the adult is too overwhelmed by their feelings, it will be scary to the child in this already frightening moment.

Be honest

Talk to the child about death in an honest, direct way. Do not be afraid to use the words dead, dying or death. Saying the person is ‘sleeping’ or ‘we lost them’ can be confusing to a young mind. Telling a child the truth opens communication and builds trust. When we are honest with a child, in a way they can understand, they will know that they can come to you with any struggles or confusion that occur.

Children and emotions

After a death, children may feel bombarded with emotions that are troubling or unfamiliar. If the feelings are too intense, a child’s mind may move them from painful feelings to something more pleasant. Because of this, children usually grieve in small bits. One minute they will be crying, and the next they will be playing. This is perfectly normal.

Because children do not show their grief in the same way as adults, it may appear that they are not grieving and do not require any support. It is important to understand that while a child may still play, or not talk about the death, they are dealing in their own way. They are hurting and need our time and support.

One of the most common feelings for a grieving child is fear. What happened? Where is the person now? Who will take care of me? Will more people die? The more direct we can answer these questions, the safer a child will feel.

Another common emotion is guilt. Children may also fear they caused the death or missed something that could have prevented the death. Reassurance and understanding can help with this emotion.

How to support children who are grieving

Knowing what to say and how to support children during this time is not easy. Ask about their feelings and respond with reassurance and care. It is important to allow children to express their worries and to give the time to adjust to the change in their lives.

Grief is a process that happens over time. In most cases, active grieving goes on for about a year. If a child receives love, warmth and understanding from a caring adult, they can begin to recover a sense of safety. It is important to remember that healing is not about forgetting the loved one. It is about teaching children how to keep and  treasure the loving memories that will comfort them as they go on to enjoy life.

Here are some suggestions to help your child cope with a loss:

  • Engage the child in conversation and encourage questions.
  • Start with small amounts of information. When the child is ready to hear more, they will ask.
  • Do not be afraid to use words such as death, dying and dead.
  • Allow for expressions of grief.
  • Remember that children grieve differently than adults.
  • Maintain a consistent and regular routine.

Some children may find comfort through our partner, FRIENDS WAY. FRIENDS WAY is the only bereavement center in the state, serving children ages three to 18 and families from throughout the region.

If your child requires additional support, call Kids-Link RI at 1-855-543-5465.

Mary Sullivan, Chief Nursing Officer, Bradley Hospital

Mary Sullivan, PhD, MA, BSN

Dr. Mary Sullivan is chief nursing officer for Bradley Hospital. She is responsible for nursing care delivery across all services in the hospital and is a member of the senior management team.