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Helping Children Cope With Grief

Kathryn Patricelli, MA, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

mother and grieving childCoping with a death or other significant loss can be difficult for the strongest of adults. It can be even more difficult and confusing for children. Here are a few ways to assist a child during grief.

  • Tell the Child What Has Happened. It is important to communicate openly and honestly with children about what has happened. When a death has occurred, many people try to soften the blow by using euphemistic phrases such as "He's gone to sleep" or "She's gone away". Dodging the issue in this manner, however well intentioned, can result in further confusion. For example, telling a child that a loved one has "gone away" suggests that they had a choice in the matter, and that therefore other people may abandon the child too. Alternatively, the child might think that the loved one can come back again, which can only set them up for further disappointment. Creation of mistaken impressions such as these might create unnecessary fear or confusion for the child, rather than the comfort that was intended.
  • Showing Some Vulnerability is Okay. It is okay for children to see that adults are suffering as well as they are, and that the loss is difficult for anyone to get through, regardless of age and experience. It is important not feel as though you must have all the answers, or present yourself as invulnerable. At the same time, it is NOT okay for adults to lay the burden of their own grief onto children's shoulders, or to ask children, either explicitly or implicitly, to assist them in coping with their own grief. Making a child into a confidant in this manner is harmful to the child, in that children are not mature enough emotionally to handle that sort of pressure. Adults should be open with children about their own sadness or pain, but not expect or communicate to children that they should do something to make things better for the adults. It can be quite difficult for grieving adults to find the right balance between sharing enough with children to help them understand what has happened, and sharing too much (which can lead to coping problems for the children).