How to Help Children Come to Terms with Loss

By Jane Schneider

No matter how tranquil a life we try to create for our children, they're likely to experience a range of losses, from moving or divorce to the death of a favorite pet or grandparent. As parents, it's our role to help them navigate the turbulent sea of emotions that accompanies grief. Here's how …

Julia Wilcox Rathkey's suburban life was abruptly shattered six years ago when she lost her husband, David, in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In addition to her own feelings of overwhelming loss, Rathkey found herself with three children experiencing grief in wildly differing ways. Her then 12-year-old daughter, Emma, became uncommunicative, one of her 10-year-old twins, Ian, wore his emotions on his sleeve, and the other, Matthew, withdrew.

"The only thing I felt I could do was to be there - giving love, routine, honesty and a sense of stability and control," Rathkey says. Her journey gave rise to her book What Children Need When They Grieve.

As the emotional guide for her family, Rathkey learned to strike a balance between sharing her own feelings while tuning in to the needs of her children. For example, when it came to her kids' return to school 11 days after the attack, she realized what they craved most was a safe haven.

"They told me they didn't want to be treated differently," she recalls. "They didn't want kids whispering or staring at them."

So Rathkey spoke with school counselors and teachers to make sure the learning environment would be a nurturing one.

"Grief doesn't have a timetable," she notes. "Our society wants everybody to be happy - especially children - but they need to be sad to get through the grieving process."

Expressing Grief

While children can experience many forms of loss, such as the divorce of parents or the departure of a friend, the permanence of death sets it apart. Death can also raise many questions in a child's mind, questions a parent might not be ready to address. But experts say children cope better when they know the adults around them are willing to answer questions honestly and are sincerely interested in their concerns.

For many, however, death is a difficult topic to discuss. Adults often struggle to express their feelings of sadness, anger or guilt, instead putting up a brave front for their children, notes Russell Friedman, co-author of How Children Grieve and executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute in Los Angeles, which trains professionals to help people cope with loss.

Kids' Understanding of Death

Ages 2 to 7

No understanding of time or death. A grandparent's passing is viewed as temporary or reversible. May expect a loved one to return, puts a blanket in Grandma's coffin because they don't want her to get cold.

Behavior: Show grief episodically, may demonstrate regressive behaviors, such as bed-wetting; may use magical thinking to alleviate problem.

Ways to help: Use simple language about loss. Talk about your feelings. Avoid euphemistic explanations, such as "Grandma went to sleep."

Ages 7 to 12

Understand death's permanence, but may still think loved one can come back to life. Death is remote, unrelated to them.

Behavior: May experience feelings of guilt, thinking they somehow caused the death or the person died as a punishment for something they did.

Ways to help - Reassure child that loved one's death was not their fault.

Ages 12 and up

Understand death can happen to someone they know, may be more analytical of death.

Behavior: Withdrawn, angry, uncommunicative. Because they're older, may assume he can handle grief alone. Don't assume anything.

Ways to help: Share your thoughts and feelings. Demonstrate how to verbalize emotions. Offer support but don't force teen to talk. Throw out a hook, then be patient and available when he's ready to share.

"It's OK to talk with sadness, with tears, because grief is normal. It's a natural reaction to loss," Friedman assures. "Kids learn how to react by watching adults, they observe and copy what they see."

Young children process their emotions through their play, notes Angela Hamblen, director of the Center for Good Grief at Baptist Trinity Hospice in Memphis, Tenn., which runs what was one of the nation's first grief camps for kids. "Children grieve in spurts," she says. "They can only handle short intense periods of emotion, then they need to go play with a friend."

Play therapist Carolyn Tipton invites the grieving children she works with to play with the many toys she keeps in a nearby playroom.

The children re-enact their loss to gain mastery over it, Tipton notes. "Play is their vocabulary and toys are their words."

Children also crave stability and routine when traumatic change takes place, though Rathkey learned that you must be careful not to push them to rejoin some activities too soon. Her husband had coached her daughter's soccer team, so she thought Emma would want to resume play.

"In my rush to get back into routine, I got them into things they weren't emotionally ready for," she says. It wasn't until Rathkey physically stood on the soccer field that she experienced the emotional tidal wave that was unleashed. From then on, she tried to put herself in her children's shoes.

Parents also need to call on friends and tap into community resources when dealing with loss. Hospice centers offer grief camps for children who've lost a loved one. There, they can tell their stories in support groups, play and memorialize family members. Rathkey sent all of her children to bereavement camps, even though her daughter was extremely resistant. In the end, though, the adolescent gained valuable insights, and now volunteers as a junior counselor.

Even though it was difficult, Rathkey says, "I knew it was the right thing to do."

How You Can Help

Here's what the experts suggest parents do to help a child through the swirl of emotions that accompany grief:

  • Use simple, direct language to discuss death. Talk honestly about your feelings. Be direct and use specific language about a loved one's death. If a grandparent has died, say: "Grandpa was very old and his body stopped working." Don't leave it up to a child's imagination or interpretation. Remember, too, that "young kids don't get the permanence of death," says Hamblen. Heaven can be like a place you can drive to. They don't understand that death means forever.

  • Be aware of your body language. Children are great observers and will mimic your behavior. If you're uncomfortable expressing emotion, then your kids may pick up on your avoidance and think, "If Mom or Dad can't talk about this, it must be really bad," says Dan Schaefer, author of How Do We Tell the Children?

  • Provide age-appropriate information. You know your kids best; share information accordingly. Some children may want specifics about how a death occurred, particularly if it was violent in nature. If your child can formulate a good question, he deserves an honest response.

  • Establish routine. One way Rathkey re-established normalcy with her children was to have them gather for dinner each night. Being together and sharing events of the day provided stability during their recovery.

  • Don't force your child to talk. Let her know that you're available and willing to listen, but allow her to grieve in her own time. "Forcing children to tell how they feel is dangerous," says Friedman. "They'll say what they think you want to hear."

  • Speak of your loved one often. Tell funny stories, or share favorite memories. Keep pictures on display. Rathkey's family celebrates her husband's birthday each year as a way of keeping his memory alive.

  • Tell teachers and guidance counselors about your child's loss. Teachers will understand a child's inability to focus or complete assignments.

  • Watch for shifts in behavior. If your child continues to be under-functioning after six months, seek professional help.

Jane Schneider is a veteran parenting writer and editor.


Books for Grown-Ups

Books for Children

  • Let's Talk About When a Parent Dies, by Elizabeth Weitzman, Rosen Publishing Group, 1996. Child-friendly book explores the feelings kids experience when a loved one dies. Other titles in this series include coping with pet loss, divorce, blended families, and foster homes. For ages 7 and up.

  • Sometimes Bad Things Happen, by Ellen Jackson, photographs by Shelley Rotner, Millbrook Press, 2002. Ways to cope for kids. For ages 5 and up.

  • When Bad Things Happen, by Ted O'Neal, illustrated by R.W. Alley, Abbey Press, 2003. Reassuring explanations of how bad events make kids feel. For ages 9 and up.

  • On the Web

    • The Grief Recovery Institute - a training center for professionals who work with people dealing with loss, offers helpful articles on grief.

    • - Provides an excellent condensed explanation of how to talk to children about death and grieving.