The suggestions in this fact sheet are appropriate for children ages 2 to 12.
When a loved one dies, our world changes forever. This is true for both children and adults. If your child is old enough to love, he or she is old enough to feel grief. Children coping with the loss of a loved one often look to their parents or guardians for comfort and guidance.
Here Are Some Suggestions on How to Help Your Child During this Difficult Time:
Be aware that children grieve differently than adults do. Play is the language of childhood. A child may cry or seem sad one moment, then ask to go out to play the next. Children can often work out difficult feelings during play. What appears to be regular play may be an important part of your child’s grieving process. Playing with your child can comfort him or her and allow you to connect without speaking.
Use language that your child can understand. A child’s understanding of death varies with their age. Saying that a loved one is “asleep,” “lost” or “gone” may seem like a gentle concept to an adult, but it may alarm or confuse your child.
- Children ages 2 to 7 often see death as temporary. You may have to gently remind the child that the loved one has died and will not be coming back.
- Children ages 7 to 12 understand that death cannot be reversed. To cope with this knowledge, they may ask questions about the details of the loved one’s death.
Allow your child to attend the funeral if she or he wants to. Funerals are difficult for everyone. You may be tempted to shield your child from this experience. However, children usually respond best when given the choice to attend or stay home. If your child is younger than 12 and wishes to attend the funeral, bring some toys for him or her to play with. Arrange to have a friend or neighbor take the child home when he or she wants to leave.
Share your faith and beliefs in ways your child can understand. The idea of a loved one going to heaven can bring comfort to those whose beliefs include an afterlife. Keep in mind, though, that a child who does not understand that death is permanent may believe that he or she can visit the loved one in heaven. You would want to make it clear that this is not possible.
Hug your child more often. A grieving child may need more physical comforting than usual.
Ease your child’s fears. When a loved one dies, a young child may worry that other people he or she loves will also die. Your child may also worry that he or she caused the loved one’s death in some way. Pay close attention to your child so that you can help ease his or her fears.
Include your children in plans to cope with special days. Thinking about birthdays, anniversaries and holidays is often more difficult than dealing with the days themselves. Talk to your child when you make plans for honoring your loved one. Give yourself permission to try something new.
Ask for help. Members of your extended family, friends and neighbors can do things like shop for groceries or sort the mail to give you more time to spend with your child.
Get Extra Support
Take care of yourself. Parents helping their children through grief are usually grieving as well. Grief can leave you feeling tired and weak. Make sure you eat and rest regularly and find sources of support. Consider consulting a professional who understands the special needs of the bereaved for you and your child.
Consider counseling. Counseling can be a place to process your feelings and openly talk about the loved one who died. Consider consulting a professional who understands the special needs of the bereaved for you and your child.
If you need help coping, talk with your health care team or an oncology social worker. Professional oncology social workers at CancerCare offer free counseling and support groups for anyone affect by cancer. To speak with a oncology social worker at CancerCare, call 800-813-HOPE (4673).
Edited by Christine Calafiore, MSW, LSW