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How to help a grieving child: 5 coping activities

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Losing a loved one is tough on everyone, but children may experience it differently than adults. Many kids don’t have a fully formed concept of death yet, and may even be processing loss for the first time. Below, we walk through how to help a grieving child and include grief resources for children.

How a child processes grief can depend on a number of factors, such as age, personality and relationship to the deceased. Being open, honest and supportive are the best ways to help a child through this difficult process.

Death is never something you want to think about, but before a tragedy even occurs, you can protect your child by insuring your family. This ensures that there is some financial protection in the event of a tragic accident.

How to explain death to a child

The grieving process is different for everyone, meaning that no two children will experience it the same. Unfortunately, this also means that there’s no one size fits all approach to helping a child in bereavement, but the steps below may help minimize trauma and anxiety.

 

1. Be honest and direct

Honesty is the best policy when it comes to communicating death to a young person. You don’t need to share specific details about a tragedy, but have a direct discussion explaining what death means, how the person they love has died, and that they’re not coming back.

When discussing death, use simple and age-appropriate language. Avoid euphemisms such as “they’re in a better place,” as these can be confusing for a child to understand. Explain that death is a part of life, and provide real world examples from nature, such as the changing seasons or the life cycle of a butterfly.

Be prepared to have this discussion more than once. As a child processes the information, it’s normal for them to have ongoing questions about death and their lost loved one.

 

2. Normalize the grieving process

Reduce anxiety by showing your child that grieving is normal when dealing with loss. Share your own experience with grief and discuss helpful ways to cope, such as looking through old photographs, retelling old memories and memorializing loved ones.

Explain how grief comes in waves rather than all at once, and that while it’s normal to feel sad some days, there’s no guilt in feeling happy or celebratory on others.

 

3. Encourage them to express themselves

Grief can be a very lonely process for both kids and adults. Encourage children to express themselves in a way that feels comfortable for them, whether through talking about it, writing their thoughts down and/or doing something creative. All of these activities will help kids meditate their thoughts and process their trauma.

Journaling can help create meaning out of profound loss. For younger children, drawing and coloring can achieve a similar effect. Ask specific questions around why they chose certain colors or what their drawings represent for more insight into a child’s grieving process.

 

“If we create a space where our children can freely express their grief, in whatever form it takes, our children will learn that they are capable of handling difficult situations.”

Amanda K. Darnley, Psy.D., MHC
Licensed Psychologist/Owner, Chrysocolla Counseling, PLLC

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4. Reassure them that it’s not their fault

During bereavement, some children may feel guilt or blame themselves for the death. This part of grief, known as self-blame, can be especially traumatizing when the death is a close loved one, such as a parent or sibling. If your child is using language that signals they may feel they are somehow involved, reassure them that is not the case and remind them that death is a part of life we will all experience.

 

5. Keep up or create a daily routine

Getting back to everyday life or establishing a new normal can provide reassurance. Because children tend to grieve in bursts, they’ll find comfort in a routine during those times where the grief isn’t overwhelming. If you are busy dealing with the death yourself, enlist help from community members, teachers and family friends to keep this routine on track.

 

“Help kids honor their bodies and emotions by maintaining a rhythm but loosen the rigidity of the routine. This gives the child flexibility to opt out of activities at times when sadness is present.”

Lindsey Pace, LCSW

 

6. Seek the help of a professional

If your child is experiencing a deep loss, getting help from a professional early on can prevent the grief from escalating. This will also give the child someone to talk to and feel vulnerable around. Schools and houses of worship may provide free counseling services to youth experiencing loss.

 

7. Ask if they’d like to go to the funeral

If the child is old enough to attend and expresses an interest in going to a funeral, celebration of life or memorial service, there’s no reason they should stay at home. Attending allows them to grieve with other family members and loved ones. Involving them in the funeral planning process can also help them focus their energy in the early days of the loss.

Describe what each funeral event is and ask which they would like to attend. If there is going to be an open casket, explain ahead of time and see if they’re comfortable going up to the casket or prefer to stay back.

Because you are likely grieving too and may have other funeral duties, enlist help from other family members or friends. This frees you up to grieve as well while still letting the child say their goodbyes.

 

Types of death children may experience

While some children may feel immediate grief, others will experience delayed grief that manifests itself in short outbursts over a series of months or years. Here are some of the ways a child may face death and how you can help provide comfort.

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What to do when a parent dies

The loss of a parent is a profound event in a child’s life. An estimated 5% of children will lose one or both parents by the age of 15 in the U.S, and that percentage is higher in lower socioeconomic groups.

Without a support system in place, a child can be at risk of psychological problems after losing a parent. School work is also more likely to suffer, and if the lost parent is the same gender as the child, delinquency is more likely to occur.

Recent studies suggest that children with a consistent parental figure can achieve a healthy outcome after the loss of a parent if they have another parental figure in place who will fully commit to their recovery.

How to help:

  • Encourage open communication about the loss and the grieving process.
  • Reassure the child that they are not alone and share some of your grief with them.
  • Keep routines as normal as possible to show that life will go on in an organized fashion.

 

Death of a sibling

Children who lose a sibling are more likely to face long-term challenges than adults who lose a sibling. Surviving siblings may experience guilt in addition to sadness, and health and development, self-esteem and behavior at school may suffer.

The sibling relationship plays a role in how tough the grieving process will be. A child who loses a sibling with whom they shared a room or were particularly close to is more likely to be profoundly affected by the loss.

How to help:

  • Encourage healthy ways to process grief, such as through creative activities.
  • Remember that everyone grieves differently.
  • Seek out professional help if their grief is profound.

 

Saying goodbye to a grandparent

The first human loss most children experience is the death of a grandparent. This early brush with death may trigger anxiety that they will lose other loved ones, or they may process the news as a normal part of life.

Children will pick up cues from their parents about the response to death, so it’s important to be mindful of that as you yourself grieve. While honesty is the best policy, if you are experiencing deep grief over the loss of a parent, in-law or other close friend or family member, seek out professional help if it's interfering with how you care for or interact with others.

How to help:

  • Look through old photographs and family videos with your child.
  • Retell stories involving the grandparent that the child may not remember.
  • Create a memory book and help your child write down memories while they’re fresh.

 

How to cope with losing a pet

Sometimes losing a pet can hit children harder than losing a grandparent or other relative. While adults tend to emotionally separate animal and human deaths and process each differently, children view their pet as another family member.

After a loss, let your pet’s memory live on through stories, photographs and a memorial displayed somewhere at home.

How to help:

  • Share happy memories about your pet.
  • Memorialize your pet in your home or yard.
  • Consider adopting a new pet.

Grief resources for children

Almost all children will experience loss before adulthood. While you can’t stop them from experiencing grief and sadness, you can help them talk through these feelings. Below, these grief activities for kids help you tackle tough conversations.

My favorite moments activity

Memories can fade over time. Preserve them while they’re fresh with this “my favorite moments” activity. Children will draw a picture of a loved one and answer questions about their relationship and memories. To complete this activity, all you’ll need is a printer and some crayons or colored pencils.

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My favorite moments activity
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Conversation starters about grief

Being a good listener can help combat the loneliness that surrounds most grief. These conversation starters will help guide the conversation, offering opportunities for both deep reflection and positive recollection.

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Conversation starters about grief
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Support circle worksheet

A child dealing with loss should know, first and foremost, that they’re not alone. This support circle worksheet will remind them of family members, friends and community members they can reach out to when they are struggling.

Help your child fill out each circle, with the names of a person or people who can help them in each category. On the back of the sheet, you can include contact information such as phone numbers and emails.

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Support circle worksheet
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Calm down cards

Activities such as walking in nature or talking to a loved one are scientifically proven to lift our spirits. Teaching a child calm down methods can help them manage big emotions like anger and sadness.

These printable cards are small enough to carry around in a purse or wallet, so you can help a child who’s having a hard time calm down anywhere. Print them on cardstock and laminate them to make them more durable.

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Calm down cards
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Feelings charades

Even though it can be difficult to express emotions, doing so is an important step in the grieving process. This printable counseling activity lets kids act out how they’re feeling through well-known animal references.

To play, print and cut out the cards below. Have the child look through the deck and draw the card that most closely describes how they’re feeling that day. Then, have them act it out as you guess their character.

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Feelings charades
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If they pick a negative emotion, it gives you the opportunity to discuss it more in depth with them. Celebrate on days when your child says they feel good.

When you’ve prepared to help your child grieve, they’ll feel better supported during a difficult time. If signs of deep emotional disturbance still persist, it may be time to seek out professional help if you haven’t done so already.

In addition to emotional support, your practical advice may come in handy as well. If your child has inherited some of an estate or life insurance policy, you can help them understand what this financial support will mean for them in the future. This can be another opportunity to show how those who love us can help us even after they’ve gone.

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