This kit was assembled by The Healing Library, a team that include a children’s librarian, a licensed children’s counselor specializing in art and play therapy, a children’s literature advocate, and a programming librarian. This kit is designed to start your journey of healing, but not to complete it. Just as your loved one was unique and special, the grief process experienced by you and your children will also be unique. The resources listed and Community Helpers Guide below will assist you in taking the next steps.
Grief is actually a healing process that takes place after traumatic experiences such as the loss of a loved one. It is a serious matter, but also an opportunity for growth individually and as a family. Loved ones pass away in a variety of ways, some of which are peaceful and expected and others of which are sudden or violent. No matter how it happens, a loved one’s death will most likely result in an sense of loss for your child. The loss felt during any of these experiences is painful for all family members, but adults, wanting to minimize the grief in their children, can often unintentionally make things worse than they are. Parents often lie to their children in an effort to soften the blow because they are inadequately prepared to discuss loss, death, and grief with children.
This guide will give you strategies to talk to your children in an honest way so they understand what has happened and can heal in a way that affords growth, better preparing them to deal with difficult times as they grow older.
In conversation, there are three simple steps for parents and helpers to follow:
(a) be honest with children;
(b) encourage children to be involved; and
(c) avoid euphemisms about death. (Corr & Corr, 1996)
Listening to your child’s questions will give you insight as to what they understand about death already and what stage of grief they are experiencing.
Outside of Your Home
In addition to the conversations you have as a family, your child may find comfort exploring this matter with others, as well. Peers and the media, for example, may offer alternative viewpoints about what happens when we die. Preparing your child to expect alternate viewpoints may reduce their confusion. Explain to your child that the world is a big place with a lot of big ideas about everything, including death. (Let your child know that you are sharing these perspectives to provide them with comfort and care.). Suggest that your child discuss these viewpoints with you so they can process this information.
A Few Things to Avoid
A few common tactics parents have developed to try and minimize their child’s pain include the following. Also listed are potential repercussions of these actions:
Ages Birth Through Preschool
Children of this age do not have a solid concept of what death is. Children mirror and take on the emotions of others at this stage of their life, so it’s important you reassure them with love, patience, and kindness. In addition, you may be going through the grieving process yourself. Don’t hide this from your child; instead, model healthy behaviors your child can replicate. If you are crying, let your child know it is because you miss your loved one. Children ask a lot of questions at this age that may make you sad, but answer them as honestly and consistently as you can. Children also repeat questions at this age as a way to process information. Your honest answers when grieving or feeling better will provide them with what they need for their own healing process.
Grade School and Beyond
Grade school-aged children begin to have an understanding of death that becomes clearer as they become preteens and adolescents. For this age group, the 5 stages of grief will be more apparent, and your attention to verbal and physical cues will help you understand what your child needs to talk about. In addition, you may be going through the grieving process yourself. Don’t hide this from your child; instead, model healthy behaviors your child can replicate.
If you are crying, let your child know it is because you miss your loved one. Specifically, when it comes to caring for adolescents, Palmer, Saviet, & Tourish found in their study that “Providing support to a grieving adolescent or young adult requires 1) understanding normal development, 2) appreciating common grief responses, 3) identifying deviations, and 4) understanding developmentally appropriate interventions. Fortunately, recent research has begun to examine effective approaches to interventions for bereaved teens and young adults.”
Be prepared for your teen to want to spend time with their friends instead of their family. While you may find this painful, it is simply your teen’s way of normalizing the events which have occurred and building their social skills outside the family with this new piece of their identity.
Where to Draw the Line with the Truth
Being honest about your loved one’s death is important. There are instances when you should consider what your child needs to know and provide that information delicately while still being honest. For example, if your loved one is killed in an automobile accident, simply telling your child their loved one was hurt so badly the doctor couldn’t make him/ her well again will be enough. A detailed post-mortem discussion is not necessary to help your child.
If your child is having a hard time coming to terms with the death of your loved one, discussing all the wonderful points of their life may be helpful. In addition, explaining to your child that although everything dies, the way we humans live as opposed to how our pets live and how plants live can be comforting. We humans are very lucky to have the long lives that we have, as well as the ability to accomplish the variety of wonderful things we’re capable of. Even if your loved one has passed away prematurely, you can share stories of their talents, accomplishments, and brilliance together.
Such discussions about your loved one can provide comfort long after they are gone. Your family will have stories to share that will comfort everyone. These questions may spark this sharing:
Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified 5 stages to the grieving process. (Kübler-Ross, 1969) These stages are typically experienced when we suffer a loss, though not necessarily in order, not just once but sometimes repeatedly revisiting a particular stage or stages, not necessarily through experiencing all stages, and with the amount of time spent in the stages being different for everyone. Some may take only minutes to process, while others can take years. It’s important to understand that this timeline has nothing to do with the amount of love a person felt for the loved one who has died. In addition, these stages are not signs of mental illness but rather indicators that your child is going through the healing process of grief.
The world feels overwhelming and meaningless. Denial allows us to process our loss over an amount of time suitable to each person by suspending belief. When we begin to ask questions, we know that we are beginning to heal. However, as we begin to heal, the feelings we were originally denying begin to surface and must be dealt with. For a child, denial is visible when they are distraught one minute then able to play with friends or toys and seem joyful the next minute. In addition, their repeatedly asking questions is an indicator that they are suspending their denial and processing their grief again.
This stage of the healing process can feel endless. You question everything with anger, but underneath anger is your own pain. Although we live in a society where anger is not welcome, it can provide you with the strength needed during this period of healing. Anger is also representative of the love that is felt. Your child may feel angry with the person who has died, with you, with their friends, or just angry in general.
If your loved one is currently dying, you may find bargaining taking place with your child: “If she gets better, I’ll never be bad ever again.” If your loved one has already died, their bargaining may sound more like “what if” statements -- “What if I was nicer to him? Would he still be alive?” This stage can lead to feelings of guilt that are sometimes merited and other times are not. If, for example, if your child had a fight with a friend who later died of cancer, your child may feel guilt for their perceived involvement in the death. Don’t be afraid to discuss this guilt with your child and to reassure them that we all make mistakes, we simply need to learn from them. As Buzhardt & Steib point out, “Learning from mistakes is constructive; blaming ourselves for them is not” (Buzhardt & Steib, 2008).
This stage embodies a feeling of great emptiness that seems to last forever. Often the person experiencing depression withdraws from family, friends, or school. Crying is often associated with this stage. Please remember that crying is a natural part of many of the steps of the grieving process, and don’t encourage your child to “stop crying.” They will stop when the time is right.
This stage involves accepting the reality of a new world without your loved one, understanding how to adjust in this world without your loved one, and knowing that you may not feel “OK,” but you can move forward. During the acceptance phase, your child may feel guilt over “feeling better.” Remind them that feeling better does not mean their love has changed. Instead, it means that they are taking care of themselves, something their loved one would have wanted.
Death can be confusing for anyone, but for a child dealing with death for your first time, there’s an added layer of fear on top of confusion. Common explanations from parents intending to soften the blow and protect children may unintentionally make things confusing, or even worse, lead to problems in dealing with trauma as they grow older. To give your child clarity and comfort, the best approach is to be honest and consistent. Explaining that a person has died because they became sick or grew old and their body stopped working works well. If your loved one has died unexpectedly, young, or as the result of violence or an accident, your explanation will vary but should still stick to the theme that their body no longer works, so they are not alive any longer. Your child may ask the same question repeatedly, seeming to forget what you’ve already told them. This is a natural part of how they process information.
If you are also grieving, it may be painful for you to keep repeating the same answer, but keep in mind that a consistent answer is what your child needs to grieve in a healthy way. Children who have experienced death before may have more experience, but will also still go through the grieving process. Discussing those previous experiences can be useful.
It will be no surprise to you that each child will process and express their grief differently. Some will do so verbally; some will do so through imaginative and dramatic play; others will express themselves through drawings and art; and still others through physical activity. Each reaction is important, and no one way is “better” than another.
Our activities guide offers various opportunities for your child to explore and process their feelings. As you begin discussing the issue of death with your child, keep this in mind: If you’re talking with a child who does not verbally respond, it does not mean they “aren’t listening.” They may simply be processing information differently. We suggest switching over to an activity from our Activities to provide the child a physical opportunity to share their feelings and communicate with you.
Corr, D. M., & Corr, C. A. (1996). Handbook of Childhood Death and Bereavement. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.
Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan.
Palmer, M., Saviet, M., & Tourish, J. (2016). “Understanding and supporting grieving adolescents and young adults.” Pediatric Nursing, 42(6), 275-281.
• David Moorhead, children’s librarian at the Lewiston (Maine) Public Library
• Bonnie Thomas, a licensed children’s counselor specializing in art and play therapy
• Megan Emery, guide author and experience designer coordinator at the Chattanooga Public Library
• Kirsten Cappy, a children’s literature advocate and owner of Curious City
Additional resources provided by Valencia College Library.