Helping Children Cope When a Loved One Dies

Contributed By:
Laura Sollenberger, Pediatric Supportive Care Counseling Supervisor – OSF Saint Francis

When someone a child loves dies, it can be difficult to know how to help, but helping children cope with the loss is vital to the grieving process. How children cope with death depends largely on their developmental age, life experiences, personality, relationship with the person who died and the nature of the death. Grief is a unique, yet universal process.

Important Things to Remember

  1. Be patient and available to the child. Answer any questions they may have. If you do not know an answer, that is okay.
  2. Lonely Little Girl Against a WallDo not expect children’s reactions to be obvious and immediate after the death of a loved one.
  3. A child is reassured from the presence of loving people.
  4. When describing the death of someone loved to a child, use simple and direct language. Avoid saying “they passed,” “we lost them,” or “they moved on.” These euphemisms can be very confusing. A simple way to explain death is, “Died means the person is not alive anymore. Their body has stopped working” or “Died means they cannot talk, breathe, walk, move, eat or do any of the things that they could when they were alive.”
  5. Be honest! Express your own emotions regarding the death. By doing so, children have a model for expressing their own feelings.
  6. Allow children to express a full range of feelings. Sadness, anger, guilt, despair, relief and protest may be typical reactions to the death of someone loved. Children naturally dose themselves when sharing their emotions. Remember a child’s need for fun and play.
  7. Many children navigate their grief well when given the opportunity to share it in a meaningful way. However, some children struggle with their grief and may need specialized counseling to move forward with their mourning.

It is often helpful for adults to explore their own personal feelings about death as well. Examining your own concerns, doubts and fears about death can easy the burden of helping children cope when someone they love dies.