How to support a grieving child

One of the most helpful ways we can support a grieving child is to listen and normalize their feelings. 

As an adult, we can feel the pressure to want to jump in and fix the child's hurt.  Unfortunately, we cannot take the child's pain away.  It hurts when someone we love dies no matter how old you are.  Trying to comfort a child with phrases like, "I know just how you feel..." or with advice to "move on," or "don't cry" can leave a child feeling unsupported.  While our intention of soothing a child are good, using such responses can negate the child's own experiences and feelings. 

Children learn very quickly from the adults in their life about what emotion is acceptable and what is not.  When we tell children not to cry, yet they feel like crying, we teach them that what they are feeling is not right.  There is no right or wrong way to grieve. 

Children learn what is normal from the adults in their life. The biggest determining factor on how a child grieves is how the adults in their life grieve.  We teach children ways of coping with grief; we model it by our behavior and by what we say.  

It is OK to let your child see you hurting.  This can help the child feel less alone in their grief. Narrating your experience and sharing things that make you feel better is helpful for children to begin to learn how to grieve in a healthy way. For example, 

"Daddy is sad because I miss Mommy.  Sometimes I cry when I think about her.  It is OK to cry. Hugs make me feel better."

"Mommy is crying because she misses Grandpa.  I'm OK, but I am sad.  It is OK to cry. Sometimes, thinking about happy memories with Grandpa, makes me feel better.  I remember when Grandpa used to feed the dog the food from his plate when Nana wasn't looking..."

It is also important to use open-ended questions instead of "are you sad?"  This allows children to freely express their feelings without pressure to respond in a certain way.  When we ask "are you______?," we teach children what they should be feeling instead of giving them space to be open to their experience.  When we ask "what was that like?" we give them the space to freely express their feeling. 

Allowing children to freely express their grief is an important part in healing. When we listen, they feel supported, safe, and loved.  Normalizing and validating their experience also provides opportunities for children to be more open and honest in the future.     

Quick Tips:

  • When a child makes a statement " I miss my Grandma who died."  Simply reflect back what you heard, using their words.  This lets them know they are being listened to.
  • When a child asks a question, instead of jumping to an answer, ask them "what do you think?" This gives you a window into what the child has been thinking about and provides a better chance for you to address their actual concerns or fears.  Often children ask surface questions with deeper emotional questions underneath.  Allowing the child to expand a bit, also provides you the chance to learn where your child may need extra support.
    • It is also OK to say "I don't know the answer to that question" if the child asks something that you do not have the answer to. It is better to be honest than make something up.  
  • Validate and normalize their feelings.  "Oh honey, I am sad too. It is ok and normal to be sad."