Help Your Child to Cope with Grief and Bereavement

This week, sadly, I have had to help a child with the grief of losing her beloved Grandpa. He wasn’t that old, only 72, but contracting the Covid 19 virus on top of his emphysema meant that his lungs were seriously compromised. *Lucy (name changed for privacy) is nine years old. She doesn’t understand that grandpa was fine one week but died the next!

Her mum called me obviously in a terrible state as she too had lost her beloved Dad. However, her concern now was naturally to help little Lucy cope with the confusion, anger, sadness that are all part of the grieving process.

So, with this happening, it has prompted me to write my blog about how to help your child go through the grieving process.

It doesn’t matter if it’s the loss of a grandparent, a parent, a classmate or even a beloved family pet, the grieving process can be so hard, and every child will grieve in his or her own way. Over the past 30 plus years that I’ve been working with children, I’ve treated both very young children and of course teenagers, so in this blog, I have put together some tips which have been put into a range of ages and experiences, and a guide of what to say, and what signs to look out for, and how you can help the child/teen. 

Children and teens grieve differently to adults. Very young children may not understand what dying really means. I had one little boy once who thought he had CAUSED his grandad to die because he had been naughty that day!

On the other hand, a lady called me one day and said: “I’m really worried about my seven year old daughter – her grandma who she adored, died yesterday and we’ve told her and all she wants to seem to do is play and joke around”

So, you see, you can’t really tell how a child is going to react until it actually happens. As children get older, they start to understand more, but they will still need some support from mum and dad and other caregivers/teachers on how to process it all and how to cope with the bereavement. It is of course likely that YOU will be suffering with grief yourself, so knowing what to say and how to support your child is not going to be easy. We can’t avoid death and loss, and the pain and hurt it brings, but we can play a big part in helping the child to feel safe and secure and to be able to cope in the best way possible.

Who Should be the One to Tell the Child?

Really, the person who should break the sad news to the child, should be the closest person to him or her, even if that person happens to be one of the parents and is also grieving. However, if that person feels that he or she cannot hold it together whilst telling the child (a few tears and sadness is fine but by holding it together I mean by not having a complete meltdown) then someone else should do it, otherwise this will be so alarming and overwhelming for the poor child.

What Should you Say and How Should you Say it?

There is never going to be a perfect time to tell the child sad news, but I would suggest you do it as soon as you can. If it’s a school day, then wait until he or she comes home from school. The main thing is that you don’t want the child to hear the news from somebody else, or walk right into a situation where he finds relatives all crying and grieving. The latter could be very scary for the child. Make sure you pick a suitable place to tell the child bad news. Somewhere where he can cry, scream or shout and not be embarrassed. Don’t think it will lessen the blow to take him or her to Maccy D’s for a “Happy Meal” to tell him the news – it won’t!  It will make it worse.

Always use direct language when you are giving a child bad news. Children are extremely curious little things so be ready to give a short explanation of what happened to Grandma/Grandpa/the dog/uncle Jack! But please – don’t be too precise, just the basic information like: “Sweetheart, something very sad happened today. Grandma died.” Then wait and see what questions they ask YOU!  As long as it’s done in a calm manner, it’s much better to keep all the information very simple and just allow the child to ask their questions and give them time to take in the answer.

Naturally, the words and phrases you use will vary because of age, maturity and the developmental stage of the child. Here are some guidelines:

  • Let the child show their emotions:  Don’t try and hide your own sadness because if you do you will confuse the child. But also, don’t let the child see you at your emotional worst moments, as they may then start to worry about YOU on top of their own grief.
  • Don’t give them too many details. It is so much better to allow the child to ask questions and you answer them as they arise, to the best of your ability. They don’t need to know that Grandma had cancer or a heart attack, or that they had needles in their arms or were connected to a ventilator – they just need to know that their Grandma has died and she wont be coming back. (It’s amazing what type of things I have heard that parents HAVE said to their child – and then wonder why the child has nightmares every night!)
  • Avoid certain phrases: Please try not to tell your child that Grandma has “passed away” or “gone” or “we lost your Grandma” Children are very LITERAL , and this type of language will make him anxious, and very confused. It might even make the child believe that Grandma has gone, but she’ll be back!
  • Stick to your routine: A child feels safe and secure when you have a normal routine, so if you possibly can – simply stick to the routine that the child normally has, in that way the child can feel that life is still going on as normal.
  • Remember the one who has died: Part of the grieving process is remembering the person who has died. Just simple things like still talking about the person like “If Grandma saw you eat all your dinner up, she would be so proud of you, wouldn’t she?” In this way, the child knows it’s ok for HIM to speak about Grandma too. It’s also really important to keep photos around of the deceased and to perhaps have a little memorial service with just you and the child (and daddy/mummy of course) so that the child can say a proper goodbye.

The Death of a Grandma or Grandad

The death of a grandma or grandad is very often the child’s first experience of a death. You can explain that most people die when they are quite old, as this will stall and fear they may have about you dying as well. If the person that has died is younger, just explain that they had a seriously bad illness (or accident) and that it’s unusual for a person to do die so young.

The Death of a Brother or Sister

When a young child dies, it is quite often unexpected – due to an accident or a very serious illness. So, it would be natural for a child to ask: “Am I going to die too, like my brother?”

This is normal, as the child starts to question his mortality! Parents who have suffered the loss of a child, will probably be inconsolable themselves so it may well fall on to a grandparent or aunt and uncle or even a very close family friend, to tell the child what has happened. Again, let the child ask questions and answer them appropriately but with not too much information that they won’t be able to process.

The grieving process for a child could go on for some time, because as they mature, they will look at things in a different way, so you could still find yourself answering questions about Grandma’s death for several years. It may even be necessary to enrol the help of a therapist, to talk to them about their emotions.

The child’s teacher should be informed that there has been a death in the family so that they can make adjustments for the child and obviously be understanding when the child may get upset.

Young children do tend to go in and out of grieving mode, so do keep an eye on them – sometimes they can be fine for several months then you may notice certain things like he is wetting the bed or he has gone off his food, or he may just burst into tears for no reason or even have a meltdown for the smallest thing!

Teenagers cope with death differently. You may find that he goes to his room and wants more alone time. However, do get them to talk about their feelings as much as they can. Tell them you will always be there to listen if they just want to ask questions or even just talk about the person who has died.

Should my child attend the funeral?

No one knows your own child better than you so it should be YOU who decides whether your youngster attends a family members funeral. Personally, if my child was under, say 8 years old, I probably wouldn’t want him or her to be there. However, every child is different and all of them have different levels of maturity and understanding, so it really is down to you, the parent to decide. Funerals and memorial services are an important part of the grieving process and a good way for us to say goodbye to our loved one, but a child should never be forced to attend a funeral. If he shows signs of wanting to go – talk to him about it and makes sure he understands that most people will be very sad, and crying. You will also need to explain what happens with the casket and any other important details.

What Can I Expect from My 3 year old?

At this young age, a child won’t understand anything about death and will not be able to understand that it is permanent. He may keep asking “ when is my grandma coming back”. You just need to remind him that Grandma has died and she won’t be coming back. You may find the child might start sucking his thumb again, wetting the bed or reverting to wanting a bottle again. This is normal behaviour for a toddler who is grieving.

What can I expect from my 6 year old?

You will get a lot of questions like:

“So where is grandma now? How did she die? Will she come back? Is she just asleep?  What will happen to her now?”

Allow the child to use drawing or artwork as an outlet for his grieving. He may have nightmares or sleep disturbances, or again may revert to infantile behaviours.

What can I expect from my 10 year old?

At around ten years old, the child’s thinking and thought process has matured, and they see things in a more logical way. They are beginning to understand that death is final. Despite their logical thinking though, they may become more worried about mummy or daddy dying, or their own health. Encourage physical outlets for their grief especially if they are showing signs of anger – let them run, play football and make sure you answer all their questions honestly.

What can I expect with my 15 year old?

At around 15, teenagers have a much more adult concept of death. Your teen may be very sad but not want to show it. Encourage him or her to talk – with you – with their teachers – or friends. Just let them grieve in their own way – no matter what that is – ask them if they feel they need to speak with a therapist. A couple of sessions can often help so much.

So when should I get professional help for my child?

It takes time to grieve. It is a natural process but if symptoms persist longer than say five or six months, then you should seek the help of a professional. Some signs that your child may need help are:

  • Anger
  • Moodiness
  • Nightmares
  • Sleepwalking
  • Poor concentration
  • Sleep issues
  • Bedwetting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Regression behaviour (child becomes clingy)
  • Behaviour problems
  • Detachment from others
  • Drug or alcohol use in teenagers
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • School refusal

You Must Take Care of YOU!

You must take care of yourself otherwise you will not be mentally able to help your child. Find good sources of help and support. Be prepared to accept help from other family members and friends, and if you feel it would help to speak to a professional about your emotions – do so – not only will this help you but it will certainly also help your child.

Most children and teens are resilient and will get through bad times, with no real bad outcome. On occasions however, the child needs just that extra little bit of help and if I can extend my professional help to you just contact me at:

I will do my utmost to help your child and of course yourself.


1 Comment

  1. Tia Whitaker on May 7, 2020 at 10:10 pm

    That was so insightful Elaine.

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