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Talking to Children & Teens

When a loved one dies, it can be difficult to know how to help kids cope with the loss, particularly as you work through your own grief. By being open and honest, encouraging communication, and sharing your own feelings, you and your children cope with painful times and begin your healing journey together.

 

Childhood and Grief

A child's ability to understand death varies according to his or her age.

Infants and Toddlers feel a loss through the absence of a loved one, interruption in their regular routine, and through the grief and stress they sense in their parents or other family members. Make sure to spend extra time with them on a regular schedule as much as possible. 


Younger children might have trouble understanding the permanence of death. When you talk to young children about death, make sure to use concrete language, avoid euphemisms, and reassure the child that the death is not a consequence of something he or she did.

 

Older children are beginning to understand the permanence of death. They often know more about death and have more specific questions. It is important to answer their questions to the best of your ability, and provide as much specific, factual information as possible. Try to keep them to regular routines, and give them opportunities for the constructive venting of feelings and grief.

 

Teenagers process grief more like adults, experiencing anger and sadness as they begin to cope. Do not feel disappointed if it seems that they may want to talk more to their friends than to parents, this is normal and can help them to share their feelings and heal. Because their grief is similar to that of an adult, a teenager may take longer to recover from a loss than a younger child. Questions may come up about mortality and vulnerability, and your role is to empathize with them, listen to their concerns, and remind them that their feelings are normal and things will get better with time.

 


Tips for Talking to Children about Death

  • Use concrete terms when talking about death. Do not shy away from the words "death" and "dead". While it might seem gentler to use phrases like "passed away" or "went to sleep", this can be confusing for a child and lead to difficulty understanding the finality of death.

  • If your child does not understand what death means, try explaining it in terms of the body, such as "Aunt Rachel's body stopped working".
  • Encourage questions, and answer them to the best of your ability.

  • Be honest when you do not know the answer. An honest, "I just do not know the answer to that one", can be more comforting than a made-up answer or an answer you do not believe.

  • Your child will probably be dealing with a lot of difficult emotions, some of which he or she may not have experience before. Give your child a safe space to express his or her emotions, and spend time talking openly about his or her feelings and thoughts.

  • Remember that recovery is an ongoing process. Young children often experience periods of normalcy which interrupt their intense grief, and the alternating periods might shift over the course of hours, days, or even years.

  • Listen to their fears and reassure them. Children can develop fears as the result of a loved one's death. Whether it is an irrational fear linked to the cause of death, a fear of losing you or another family member, or a fear that something they did caused the death to happen, spend time comforting your children and helping to comfort their fears.

  • If your family holds particular religious beliefs about what happens after you die, you can share them with your child as a source of comfort (you may not wish to be too abstract for children under age 5). 

  • Do not hide your own grief. It is important for children to know that adults cry when they are very sad, too, and that their feelings of grief are normal and shared by others. Let them know that you are okay, and find comfort together by sharing your feelings and remembering the loved one who is gone.

  • If your child seems to be struggling especially hard with a loss, or if grief is seriously interfering with their day-to-day activities, routines, and outlook on life, do not be afraid to seek professional help or therapy when it is needed.

 


Helpful Resources

The following links provide more detailed information on a variety of topics related to helping children and teens cope with loss.

 

When Families Grieve™

This guide was created by Sesame Workshop, the educational organization behind Sesame Street. It explores children's understanding of death and offers information about communicating, ideas for coping together, and ways to move forward with your children after a loss.

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Helpful Children's Books

This list recommends children's books that deal with death and grief. These easy-to-read stories can open up a meaningful discussion between you and your child, and help children make sense of their feelings and understand what they are experiencing.

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More Advice

Here you will find a Huffington Post article by Judith Acosta containing advice and guidance from her book Verbal First Aid, which counsels parents on ways to help kids heal from fear and pain in a variety of situations, including the death of a loved one. If you find the advice in the article helpful, you may want to read her book for even more insight.

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