1. Grief is individual
Children usually don’t tell you they are grieving by what they say and do. No two children grieve the exact same way, but there are typical reactions that can help you know a child is grieving.
2. Use simple, clear, age-appropriate language
The caregiver/parent should explain the death in a compassionate manner using age-appropriate explanations in language children can understand. It is important to use the right words to talk about the death, like “Mom died from cancer.” Avoid euphemisms such as “passed away” or “went to sleep,” as they can confuse the children. This is key so that children do not associate the death with anything other than the reality of how it occurred.
3. Children want to be told the truth
It can be difficult to explain a stigmatized death to a child, such as death from a suicide or drugs. Our instinct is to protect the child from heartbreaking situations. Although it might be more comfortable for us to avoid these conversations, they are very important for the child’s understanding.
4. Be honest
Honesty is the foundation of a trusting relationship between the caregiver/ parent and child. Lying to children about the circumstances of death can lead to bitterness and mistrust when children learn the truth. Let the child’s questions guide what you share. Speak openly and honestly about the death. It is OK not to know all the answers.
5. Take time to prepare for difficult conversations
Take some deep breaths and give yourself time to collect your thoughts. Think of this initial conversation as laying the groundwork, allowing the child to ask questions and exploring what the child is thinking. It is not the time to share all available information. Focus on ensuring they understand what was said, and explain that the death was no one’s fault.
6. Accept this is an ongoing conversation
Younger children might need to be told many times about the death, as they might ask over and over again how the person died.
When a child is grieving, people can be quick to offer advice, give opinions, and make judgments. What’s most helpful is to listen without judging, interpreting, or evaluating. Listening is a two-way conversation. Sometimes the best response is to repeat what you hear them say — called “reflecting”— so that they know they have been heard. Listening to children, without jumping in to try to fix anything or make it better, is one of the best ways to help them feel heard and supported.
8. Model healthy grieving
Children look to their caregiver/parent as a role model for how people grieve. Share your feelings with them as long as they are relieved of the task of trying to “fix it.”
9. Allow and validate emotional expression
It is important for grieving children to be able to express their grief and have it validated. Validation of grief reactions occur when adults or peers in a child’s life acknowledge what the child is feeling and allows the child the space needed to express his/her grief in the way that feels most natural to them (as long as they are not hurting themselves or others).
10. Grief is long-lasting
Grief is not an experience that children “get over” or “move on” from after a few weeks or months. Grief does not have a timeline, and it changes over the course of someone’s life. It is OK for children to continue to grieve the loss as they grow and develop.
You can access additional resources and support at www.childrengrieve.org.