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Emotional Health

Guide Your Child Through Grief

Helpful Tips for Talking to Your Child About Death

Even as an adult, navigating grief can be very difficult. Talking to children about the death of a loved one can spark a lot of questions. A lack of support and information for children during the grieving process can lead to the development of feelings of abandonment and helplessness.

“Children can experience grief in a variety of circumstances, including the death of a loved one,” says Northwestern Medicine Child Life Specialist Ginger Manzella. “It’s important to talk your child through loss so that they know what’s happening and can work through their feelings.”

Honesty Is Key

It’s hard to hide your feelings. Even if you try to hide your grief for the sake of your child, you’re likely going to be unsuccessful. Your child will notice.

“Children shielded from the truth are likely to worry, rely on overheard bits of conversation, or make up something in order to make sense of the unusual behaviors they’re observing,” says Manzella. “That’s why it’s important to talk to your children directly about death.”

You have to use the words ‘death,’ ‘died,’ and ‘dead’.
— Ginger Manzella, Child Life Specialist

Children are better able to cope with grief and difficult situations if they know what’s happening and feel comfortable asking questions. As the adult, you must give your child the opportunity to grieve by creating an environment in which your child feels comfortable and reassured. This starts with honesty and openness. By giving your child information about the death of a loved one, you may also be giving them the opportunity to:

  • Work through their feelings with family members who may be experiencing the same emotions
  • Feel less isolated
  • Learn to trust what adults are telling them
  • Learn to trust their own perceptions

Here are Manzella’s tips for walking your child through difficult moments.

Use the real words. It is hard to imagine having a conversation with a child about the death of someone they loved, but being honest is the best way for them to fully understand the situation.

“You have to use the words ‘death,’ ‘died,’ and/or ‘dead,’” says Manzella. “It’s the hardest thing to say, but it’s the only way to help them understand the permanence of the situation.”

Misconceptions are common among children. Dancing around words like “death” by saying the person is “asleep” or has “gone away” will only lead to more confusion, resentment or grief later. You can lean on your family’s spiritual or cultural belief system for language, such as “heaven” or “the afterlife.”

In your conversation, reiterate to your child that the death is not their fault.

Encourage expression. “Let your child know that expressing emotions and asking questions is OK,” says Manzella. Expressing your own emotions shows your child that they can, too. Encourage them to remember good things about the person who has died.

Be prepared. “Talk with your child about what to expect in the next few days surrounding the death of a loved one,” says Manzella. “If your child or children are going to see the loved one who is dying or has died, make sure they are properly prepared.”

You can do this by explaining what they are going to see as honestly and in as much detail as possible. Explain medical equipment and cause of death in simple terms when appropriate. Use pictures first if possible to ease the transition. Listen for concerns and misconceptions, and address them beforehand if possible.

Seek help from professionals if needed. Consider professional help for your child, your family and yourself. One of the important steps in working through the loss of a loved one is accepting that you may not know all of the answers. It’s OK to seek guidance from a therapist, child life specialist or a member of your community.

“Above all, it is important to acknowledge your child’s feelings and create an open, safe space for them so that they can process their grief,” says Manzella. “And remember: It’s OK to not have all the answers, but always be honest.”