Coping with Loss: How to Help Your Child

coping with loss

Losing a grandparent or other close family friend is often a child’s first true experience with death.  Sure, they might have lost a goldfish or two along the way, but facing the loss of a loved one can feel like an impossible task for a child.

While children process loss in different ways depending on age, there are ways to help them work through their grief and process these very confusing and overwhelming feelings.

Be honest but brief:

Parents often wonder what to tell kids following a loss.  Do we share the details?  Do we talk around it and hope they stop asking questions?  How do we proceed?

The truth is that kids know what’s going on around them.  They might not be able to connect all of the dots, but they tend be fairly intuitive when it comes to the emotions floating around in the home.

Give a brief but honest description of what happened.  Do not get into the details, as too many details can be scary and lead to anxious thoughts.  Take some time to prepare a script in your mind and repeat as necessary.  Kids will often ask the same questions repeatedly as they process the loss.

Reassure them:

Children tend to jump to conclusions when it comes to loss.  When you give a generic description that tells them Grandpa was old, so he died your child might very well worry that you are old and you will die next.

Reassure your child that this is something that happened to Grandpa, not you. 

Create a send-off:

While funerals and other services can be a beautiful family experience, they are often boring to children.  Also?  It’s very confusing and unsettling to watch a room full of grown ups cry.  While sharing your own sadness can normalize feelings for your kids, you need to be careful not to project your feelings onto your child.

Consider a kid friendly send-off instead.  Write notes to your loved one and tie them to a bouquet of balloons in his or her favorite color, and then send them off into the sky (not green-friendly, but very powerful imagery for children).  Plant a tree or bush in your yard and place a garden bench nearby as a place to remember your loved one.

Expect regression:

Loss is anxiety producing and difficult to process.  While some kids might seem to lack any reaction at all, others might express opposite emotions (laughter can be a sign of confused emotions and/or anxiety).  And many will show regressed behavior.

Bedwetting, difficulty sleeping through the night, baby talk, hitting and biting, and difficulty eating are all common.

Talk about feelings:

Check in with your child often.  Talk about how it feels to lose a loved one.  Be honest about how difficult it can be to say goodbye.  Allow your child to verbalize her feelings openly and often without judgment.

Feelings faces posters can be very helpful for younger children that struggle to find the words for their feelings.


Share stories:

Memories help us remain focused on the positive, instead of thinking about the end.  Share your favorite stories.  Tell them over and over again.  Look through old photos together and watch any videos you might have.  A walk down memory lane can soothe the soul.

Make a scrapbook:

Help your child create her own scrapbook to remember her loved one.  Let her choose the pictures and memories that are important to her, and help her write down the stories to describe the picture.  It can be tempting to jump in and create the scrapbook for our kids, but when we let them put the memories together, it holds more meaning for them.

Has your child experienced loss?  How did you help your child cope?

Image via iStock


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Coping with Loss: How to Help Your Child

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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  1. Donna Melton says:

    We lost my mother in law bout 6 yes ago and wat was so bad is the fact tht she passed away only sons 7th birthday, it was gonna be hard enough to tell him he lost his grandmother but I was gonna have to do it on a day tht was pose to be a happy day ya no. Well win I told him he says to me Moma why did she have to die on my birthday? Of course Im standing there thinking wat can I tell my son to make him at least feel sum better. Well this is wat I told him and wat surprised me was tht he felt better after I told him I said son she loved you so, so much and she didn’t want you to ever forget her and a way for her to do tht was to leave us on your birthday, tht way she knew all of us would member he, she loved you more then anything son and she wants ya to always member this and so thts why she left us today. I was surprised but he said OK moma I’m so glad she picked me outa everyone else to love tht much and moma I hope she knows I loved her as much as she loved me probably more he said and off he went. If actually made him feel better at tht moment at least.

  2. Arthur says:

    Hi Katie,just followed you on Twitter

    I find your ideas interesting.Just one thing I would like to add is that these are the moments when your child is emotionally open.These moments are few and far between but if you would teach your son/daughter anything during these moments then they are more likely to retain it as they are emotionally receptive.So as a parent these are the moments when we should teach our child the important characters like compassion,kindness etc.

  3. Heatherly says:

    This is pretty good. My family experienced the loss of my 8-month old son two years ago. We didn’t have any regression or emotional issues from the othr 7 children though. We talked alot, and still do of their brother Endurance. On his birthday we go out for something a little special in remembrance of him. We have been able to visit his grave site a few times as well. Looking at pictures of Endurance with his siblings is special too! Healing takes time. Hugs are wonderful!

  4. KaelinRae says:

    This is full of a lot of helpful tips. I was lucky and didn’t really experience loss as a child, however my younger siblings haven’t been as lucky. I’m just glad that all of the people who have moved on are no longer suffering.

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