How to Help Children Cope with Grief

A sad looking boy sits on the edge of a bench, alone.My own grandma, who was 96 years-old, died at the beginning of February, and my husband’s grandma, 95 years-old, died February 24, 2012. In between those events, my son turned one year-old. He does not know anything about grief because he is too young, but one day I will need to explain it to him.

For many parents, it is hard to explain grief to our children. Sometimes we have difficulty understanding it ourselves. I am writing this in hopes that others may come to a greater understanding and be able talk about grief with their children.

Grief is an emotion, but some people may not recognize it as such, because grief is much more than sadness. Grief, in my opinion, is a mixture of feelings that can be jumbled, then clear, then jumbled and clear again. The feelings may be unexplainable, extreme reactions or they may be right on target. Grief can accompany loneliness due to a sense of loss. A sense of loss is related to losing someone in a relationship, a loss of “what could have been” or “once was.”

Stages of Grief (according to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross)

  • Denial: I can’t believe this is happening to me.
  • Anger: Why me?
  • Bargaining: I’ll do anything.
  • Depression: Why bother with anything?
  • Acceptance: It’s going to be okay.

This is a brief outline of the stages, and you can search on the Internet for “Kubler-Ross: Stages of Grief” for more information.

These stages do not always go in precisely this order. These stages are all feelings, and feelings can sometimes have a mind of their own, which is why grief can take a long time. It is said that losing someone can take up to 2 years to fully resolve. However, we all could be in any, or all, stages of grief for any period of time.

With the loss of my grandma, I immediately cried, and it was difficult that day. For me, personally, I did not go through all the stages. A person does not have to, but some do. Since my grandma was 96 years-old, I was able to reason that she lived a long time, had a great and interesting life, and was relatively healthy. She fell, broke her hip, had the surgery, and made it through, but she died a few days later. It happens. I have accepted it. My husband was crying too, but more for my pain.

His grandma died yesterday. She was 95, lived a long and good life, but got the flu, which turned into pneumonia, and she eventually died. He was very tearful, and I was too, because of his pain. He was also feeling stress and easily agitated; he needed a little space, at times. He has accepted it, but when he’s feeling hurt, he sometimes becomes irritable. He could jump stages.

With the stages outlined, I hope I have illustrated how quickly a person can go through them. Some may not go as fast as others, and no matter how quickly a person goes through the stages, it does not mean that the feelings are all settled. There will be anniversaries, the person’s birthdays, and special events that recall memories, but over time, the feelings become less intense, and true acceptance does come.

Explaining death to children can be difficult, because they have many questions we may not have the answers to; and that is okay. I am perfectly fine with telling my son, when he’s older, that “I do not know everything, but together we can work through this.” Some parents may feel they should know everything, but that is not realistic. The main thing to remember when a child is grieving is to be supportive. My husband and I are here for each other and our family. When my son is old enough to experience that kind of loss, then we will be here for him.

  • Allow children to ask questions. Again, you may not know everything, and that is okay. It may not be important for the actual question to be answered; your listening and allowing them to ask may be enough.
  • Explain to them that they may feel a lot of different types of feelings at once. They do not need to know the actual stages of grief in the way you do, but give it to them in terms that they understand. Help them understand that if they are more irritable than usual, that may be because someone died, or a friend has moved away, or they cannot find their favorite stuffed animal to sleep with. You may want to remind them that, even though they are feeling mixed up, they will still need to be respectful for their homework, chores, and maintaining their regular life, in general.
  • Help them name their feelings. You will need to listen to what they are really saying. If they cannot explain what they are feeling, then validate those feelings. Their personality will be different from yours, and they will not always feel the same way you do, or at the same time. It is important for you to help them identify their feelings, so that they will have a better understanding when they experience other losses later on.
  • Help them to create a journal, special book about the loved one, or a treasure box. These types of objects can also help them, and you, work through their grief, as well as remember the good times with that person. It can be difficult, but it is healthy. Creating these types of projects can help the emotions flow, helping the healing process.
  • Tell them that it is okay to be happy when they have a good memory of the person.

I remember when my dad died of cancer, 16 years ago, we were at the funeral home and we laughed. We were laughing at the thought of my dad having flowers or picking out the flowers because he was not that type of person. He did buy flowers for my mom, but when it came to himself, he was all business. Yes, I did have fun with him, and there are many memories of him that I treasure. I will share those with my son, as he gets older. It is okay to laugh, and it is okay to continue living.

You are not going to hurt the person who is dead, gone, or moved away if you are laughing, having a good time, or continuing to move through your life. You are not being disloyal to that person. This is important to understand, because when a person dies, you are still living, and it is okay. Every person has a time that they are going to die, and when that time comes, it may not always make sense, but it is okay for the living to continue on with their lives.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Kelly Sanders, MFT, therapist in Rancho Cucamonga, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Wayne


    March 1st, 2012 at 12:25 AM

    some of the worse things a parent can do while explaining grief to a child is saying it will go away(without working over it), not acknowledging it wil have a lasting impression on children’s nd hence te right approach needs to be employed.

    thank you for the article explaining this.

  • xenia


    March 1st, 2012 at 5:18 AM

    Some people who have loved and lost seem almost scared to be happy again after the death, almost like they are afraid they are dishonoring their loved one by feeling happiness again. But don’t they know that feeling happiness is ok, that God would not want us to continue through life so sad all of the time?

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