How to Help a Child Cope with Grief

Dealing with grief

My mum was only 52 when she died. I was 21 so I wasn’t a child and yet, she had started her road to alcoholism when I was just seven – so in reality I felt abandonment issues from that  very young age. When my mother DID pass- away, I felt relief. Then I felt guilty because I felt relief – a vicious circle that probably went on for years until I, myself became a therapist and was obviously able to understand the reasoning behind it. 

Grief and death seem to be taboo subjects

Many parents find it really difficult to explain grief and bereavement to their children. You see, grief is an emotion, that’s all it is – an emotion like anger or anxiety, sadness or happiness. A lot of people explain grief as a sense of loss, and of course it doesn’t always have to come with the death of a loved one does it? We can grieve when a boyfriend dumps us after a long courtship. We can grieve when we lose our job. We can grieve when we lose a pet (either through death or if he should run away) we can grieve for what “was” or “what may have been or what never will be!”

They say there are various stages of grief:

  1. Denial: We cannot believe it has happened
  2. Anger: If there is a GOD why has this happened to our family
  3. Bargaining: I’ll do anything if you bring him back
  4. Depression: Why bother getting out of bed
  5. Acceptance: It’s going to be alright

Sometimes things don’t always happen in that order, however, once you have gone through all those feelings, you normally do come out the other side ok.

When someone dies, our immediate thoughts tend to go to the loved one /s who are left behind. I remember thinking when I heard that my mum had died “we must get to my dad – he’s on his own – we can’t let him be alone”. But the truth was that he probably WANTED to be alone. With his thoughts. With his memories. 

It’s important to give people space

Most people will tell you that it takes you up to two years to “get over” the death of a loved one but to be honest – it needn’t take that long, and of course everyone is unique in their feelings and how they grieve. I hardly cried when my mum died. I don’t know why.

It wasn’t that I didn’t love her and didn’t care – far from it. I think I had a quite pragmatic view of death – “she’s gone, there’s nothing I can do, life has to go on” But of course not everyone is like that. Of course, every time there is a birthday, anniversary of the loved one’s death, Christmas etc it brings back memories and the wound can be opened but that is normal.

Each year that goes by, it gets easier.

Explaining death to a child 

Trying to explain death and grief to children can be tough. For one thing, children are naturally curious and will probably ask lots of questions, to which we may not have all the answers to. But that’s okay, because the main thing is that you are THERE for the child and you are supporting him or her through it. 

So, what are the main things you can do to help a grieving child?  

  1. Give the child a chance to ask questions, and if you don’t know the answer say so for example “Why did Grandma have to die?”  your natural reaction would be to say that she was old but if your child didn’t really consider her to be “old” he’s not going to understand that. You could day, “because grandma was very sick and the doctors and nurses did all they could to help her but her body just couldn’t handle it” It may not even need answer, you being there and holding them may be all they need. 
  1. Explain to them that they may have a lot of different feelings all at once as this will confuse them. For example, tell him that he may be feeling happy one minute but then all of a sudden a thought may go through his head about his grandma/grandad/cat/dog/ and then he will be crying uncontrollably – he needs to understand that it’s normal to feel like that when someone dies. He may feel angry one minute then sad the next – again, that’s okay too! 
  1. Really “listen” to your child if they can’t really explain how they are feeling, and make sure you validate their feelings even if it is really bad behaviour, anger etc. Say something like “I understand that you are feeling angry because grandma has died sweetheart and it’s okay to feel that – it will soon pass, I promise you.” 
  1. Suggest that they do something creative to remember their loved one by, for example; planting a tree or a plant in the garden, or making a scrapbook of all the funny photos or things that you remember them by because you can then both look back through on days when the loss is particularly painful and get the child to talk about the deceased, this will prevent the child bottling up the feelings, and help the healing process.
  1. Let the child know that healthy humour is okay! I remember when my brothers and I were sat in the funeral car outside our home in London, and at one stage the hearse was stopped outside an off licence. I looked at one of my brothers and smiled because I just knew what he would be thinking – we started giggling which probably looked really bad but it got us through what could have been a really bad day. It was probably nervous laughter – and that’s okay too! It’s okay to laugh and its okay to go on living.

But what happens when a child just doesn’t seem to be able get on with life and remains sad, and perhaps anxious and starts talking about death and dying? What do we do then? 

There IS help if you need it!

At my two therapy clinics in London and Berkshire, I see a fair amount of children who are still struggling with grief sometimes months and months after the event. One of the children I saw was Katie, who was just nine years old. Her beloved grandad had passed away almost nine months previously and her parents were worried that she wasn’t coping. She said to me :

“I think of Gramps all the time and I miss him. I wish he were still here, and then I start to worry about my mum and dad dying and then if anyone else in the family gets ill, I think they might die too.” 

Of course, all these feelings are quite normal, but nine months was a long time for it still to be affecting her so badly. I did some work with Katie about feelings and explained that her grandpa would not want her to be feeling so sad after all this time. She told me she also felt guilty if she started to feel happy because she thought her grandpa would have been upset! I gave her some ideas of a few things she could do to keep her grandpa’s memory alive in a healthy way.

Communication is vital

This is the reason that parents must communicate with their child after someone has died even though it may hurt at the time, it will actually save a lot more “hurt” in the future. Katie and I had a few sessions, I used some puppets and we did a bit of role play about grandad and the rest of the family and she was soon back to her normal happy little self again.

So, if you DO have a death in the family, or even your child’s pet dies and they don’t seem to be getting over it as quickly as they should – do contact someone like myself who knows just HOW to get those bottled up feelings out of the child and help them come to terms with them.  

And remember – grief just isn’t about death of a person, It can be linked with the death of an animal, redundancy, the end of a relationship, the loss of a home, even the loss of a future you had planned. 

And, forty- two years after my own mum’s death – do I still think of her when it’s her birthday, anniversary of her death or Christmas?

Of course I do, and I smile  – and that’s just fine! 

For further information on grief please contact me at: 

We can have a chat and I can advise on the most appropriate action.

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