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Tips for talking to children about grief

Grief is a complex and powerful emotion for adults so when it comes time to help children through the grieving process, it can be tough for parents to approach the subject.

Nicole Cooper, program coordinator at Bridges, which provides end-of-life resources, recommends four key points parents should share:

  1. Death is irreversible. Children are accustomed to seeing movies, cartoons or games where characters die and then come back to life so they may view death as temporary. It’s important to remind them death is permanent. Avoid terms like “passing away” or “going to sleep,” which can further confuse the idea.
  2. All life functions end completely when someone dies. Children may express fears that the casket is too small or dark inside; explain that the deceased is no longer aware of his surroundings.
  3. Everything that is alive will eventually die. Also reassure children that, even though everyone dies, you expect to live for many more years – a statement that can be especially important for children who have lost a parent and fear losing the other parent.
  4. There are physical reasons people die (accidents, illness). Children shouldn’t feel they did or said something that caused the person to die.

There’s no hard and fast rule when it comes to taking children to viewings or funerals. It largely depends on the individual child. Cooper recommends giving children the option, but don’t force them to attend. If children are going to the funeral, prepare them for what they might see (such as an open casket) and encourage them to ask questions.

Cooper also recommends pairing each child with an adult during the viewing or funeral. This may not be the parent, but rather a babysitter or family friend who can provide the child with personal attention and be ready should the child want to leave.

An important reminder, Cooper said, is to grieve with the child. Don’t be afraid to cry or show emotion.

“Parents and adults will try to hide their grief, but that’s the opposite of what’s most helpful,” Cooper said. “Cry in front of them and talk to them. You can help each other through those feelings.”

Even after the initial grief and funeral, encourage children to ask questions and share memories:

    • Spend some time talking about happy memories you had with your loved one. This can help your children process grief and celebrate the good memories.
    • Plan an activity that can help children process the emotion. That might include creating a photo collage, artwork or scrapbook of mementos. If you family is mourning the loss of a pet, plan a backyard memorial service and talk about all the fun times with Fido.
    • There are lots of age-appropriate books that deal with the topic of death in ways children can comprehend. Don’t hesitate to pick up a couple and read them in the coming weeks as you and your children process the loss and grief.

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