Coping with Loss

Supporting Your Child after the Death of a Loved One

When a loved one passes away, children may experience a broad range of emotions including sadness, guilt, anger and longing. Depending on their age and developmental stage, children may have a limited ability to verbalize their feelings. Similarly, their understanding of death and corresponding grief responses also change and expand as they develop. Childhood grief appears different from the grief experienced by adults, and can often occur in spurts.

Supportive tips for parents

  • Find ways to have your child feel connected to the loved one that has passed.This connection might be a shared interest (e.g. “you love singing just like your grandpa did”), a physical commonality (e.g. “you have her smile”), a way to send messages, and a focus on the afterlife if your belief system incorporates this. Storytelling and memory sharing are also ideal ways of inviting connection.
  • Talk to your child about death in a simple, clear and direct manner because this will aid in their understanding of death as irreversible, inevitable and universal. Open space for increased dialogue, particularly if your child is indicating a need to process verbally. At the same time, don’t be surprised if he/she appears ‘fine’ and unaffected.
  • Dispel any misconceptions (i.e. magical thinking about being to blame for a family member’s death) they might have. Check in with the child to see if they have understood your explanation, and reassure that they are not the cause of their loved one’s passing.
  • Increase nurturing activities for physical and emotional comfort will be helpful for soothing your child. Think about extra cuddles, reading together, baking and enjoying favourite snacks.
  • • If your child is feeling angry and is engaging in more disruptive behaviours, it is important to validate and accept his/her anger and set clear boundaries as needed. Think of yourself as a big container – large enough to hold all his/her tricky feelings. The disruptive behaviours may be a way to express underlying needs for increased nurturing, reassurance, or a need to feel in control.
  • Providing the child with some ways for expressing their angry feelings. Physical activity, drawing, singing or writing can all be creative avenues to express anger and keep it from becoming bottled up inside.
  • • If your child is expressing a feeling of guilt, normalize that many children feel this way, but accept his/her feelings and reassure that the child did not say or do anything to cause their loved one to die. Your child might need to hear these reassurances many many times so that they can integrate this into their understanding.
  • Engage in meaningful experiences of remembering and celebrating the life of the deceased. Looking at photographs, talking with family members, or creating a special ritual for your family can all be helpful ways to memorialize a loved one.
  • A child who did not have a chance to say goodbye, may benefit from writing a letter to their loved one who has died or from visiting a memorial site. These types of rituals together with other family members and friends can also increase the connectedness and cohesion between your child and yourself and other supportive people in your lives.
  • Your experiences with grief may not be the same as your child’s. Be gentle with yourself and seek your own support for coping.
  • If you have more questions or specific concerns about your child’s coping, you can consult a mental health professional to address your concerns and unique circumstances. Together with a mental health professional, you can explore how therapy may help your child express their grief in healthy ways.

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