Discussing Death with Children
Helping with Grieving
Include children in the funeral and/or memorial service
- Allow them to decide how involved they would like to be in the funeral and/or memorial service. Provide opportunities for children to make choices about the service; picking out a song, helping to choose what the person is to wear, putting something in the casket as a way of saying goodbye.
- Provide information about what to expect before, during, and after the funeral or memorial service. Prepare children for what they will see, hear, taste, feel and smell.
- Remember the "Big Energy of Grief" concept. Recognize that it will be difficult for children to sit still and be quiet when they have so many big and hard feelings inside of them. Make arrangements for a space where it is okay for children to run, play or be loud.
Share Your Feelings
- Share happy and sad memories of the person who died.
- It's okay to cry. This tells children that crying is normal and acceptable. Remember that it is not okay for children to become caretaker for a grieving adult.
- It's okay to say you're angry. Find appropriate ways to release your anger. This is an excellent role modeling technique for children.
- Children often want to protect their parents or caregivers from "hard" or "sad" feelings. Tell them that it is not their job to keep you safe.
- Most importantly, talk about your feelings and allow children to talk about their feelings as well. Remain non-judgmental about children's feelings. Recognize that they may not grieve the same way you or other adults do.
- Listen to children.
- It is essential that children be told the truth, difficult as the truth can be.
- Provide information. The younger the child, the simpler the information.
- Suicide and murder are especially difficult to explain to children. It may be helpful to consult a professional or read literature on the topic before talking to your child.
Keep Memories Alive
- Leave photographs out where they can be seen.
- Allow each child to choose something that belonged to the deceased to keep with them; including clothing, or mementos the child and the deceased shared.
- Share memories aloud. Not all memories are happy or positive. It's okay to share the good and the bad memories.
- Talk about the person who died.
- Acknowledge feelings and special events when they occur.
Allow For Grief
- Recognize that there is not time limit. Grieving is a process that does not end.
- Be aware of feelings or behaviors that may be grief related.
- Realize that the person who died will always be a part of your life and the child's life.
- Recognize that children grieve through play. Play with them. Allow children to lead the play. Be there for them.
Create a Safe Environment
- Children need to know that they will be kept safe. Children feel safe when routines, rules, and boundaries are maintained. Provide children with consistency and nurturing.
- Avoid power struggles with children whenever possible.
- Have realistic expectations for children.
- Listen without argument or judgment.
- Acknowledge children’s feelings.
Create Healing Rituals
- Sing religious songs, favorites of the person who died, or songs with special meaning.
- Remember and recognize significant dates and events. The anniversary of the loved one's death, the deceased's birthday, and wedding anniversaries are examples.
- Light a candle in honor or in memory of the person who died.
- Give a gift to a charity in the deceased's name.
- Plant a tree or rosebush in honor of the deceased.
- Write a letter to the loved one expressing feelings you have or help children write a letter.
- Create a memory book with photos and written memories of the person who died.
- Place items such as flowers and letters at the cemetery. Vandalism can occur, so do not place treasured items at the gravesite.
Take Care of Yourself
- Recognize that you have needs, too. Allow for your own feelings.
- Take time for yourself. Remember that you cannot care for a child if you do not care for yourself.
- Recognize that you will not have the energy to do it all. Prioritize.
- Have realistic expectations for yourself.
- Ask for help when you need it. Allowing a friend or relative to prepare a meal for you, clean, or baby-sit will free up the energy you need to care for a child.
- Look for community resources that can help.
Participate in Grief Activities
- Read stories that has death or grief as a theme. For book ideas, please see the bibliography in this packet. After reading a book discuss it. Point out lessons in the book. Create activities based on these lessons.
- Memory box: Find a box that can be decorated by the child. Encourage the child to decorate the box in ways that remind them of the person who died. Provide stickers, markers, and other art supplies. Children can place items that remind them of the person who died inside.
- Big Energy Activities: Punching bag, play dough, finger paint, and other physical activities. Children often express their feelings through anger, yelling, hitting, and crying for not apparent reason. It is important for them to learn appropriate ways to express these big feelings.
- Messages: As a family, write or draw messages that you would like the person who died to get. Once they are finished, tie a string though the paper and attach it to a tree. Observe that the wind can take the messages where they need to go.
- Inside/outside feelings: Discuss how sometimes the way we feel is very different than the way we act. Using a paper plate, draw the way you feel on the inside on one side and the way you act on the other side. Discuss differences and similarities.
Grieving Children and School
- Keep the school informed.
- Let school officials know about the death as soon as possible.
- Tell the school what information you would like to communicate.
- When children enter a new class each year, let the teacher know that the child's mother, father, sibling, or other close person has died and that the child may occasionally have a difficult time.
- While your child is out of school:
- Allow for contact with the school and classmates at a level that is comfortable for your child.
- It can be helpful for your child if the class sends "thinking of you" cards. Children need to know that they are missed when they are absent from school.
- Encourage the teacher to tell the class why your child is absent. Let the teacher know what details you would like passed on.
- Encourage the teacher or librarians to keep books about death and grief in their library. This helps to normalize grief and provides resources for the children in the school. Please see the bibliography in this packet for ideas.
- Going back to school:
- Allow the child to participate in deciding when they are ready to go back to school. It may not be when you expect.
- Remember that is may be difficult for the child to learn and remember new information when they first return.
- Remember that your child will have hard days. Remind the teacher of this, if needed. Suggest the teacher designate a place where the child can go if he or she is having a hard time.
- Stomach aches and headaches are sometimes a child's way of saying, "I'm feeling sad and I need to be taken care of." Prepare the school nurse for this possibility.
- Let the child know where you will be when they are at school. Remember that they will be more concerned about you than usual.
- Talk to the teacher about "Big Energy Activities" such as sports, music, painting, play dough, etc.
- Remember that grief takes a lot out of children. They may be more tired after school than usual.
Text provided by:
A Hope and Comfort in Grief Program
University of Utah Health Sciences Center
Caring Connections is sponsored in part by: The Ben B. and Iris M. Margolis Foundation.