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Navigating Grief Together: A Heartfelt Guide to Helping Young Children Cope with Loss

September 22nd, 2023

Death is a big concept, and our understanding of death changes dramatically during the course of our lives.  

Babies and toddlers, for example, have no real concept of death, though they can have strong reactions to separation from a parent and changes in routine. During the preschool and school-age years, however, death begins to take on a more real meaning. Yet while young children are old enough to understand what death is, their developing minds are still growing and lack maturity. This makes the loss of a parent or loved one an especially confusing and at times overwhelming experience for young children.  

Your heartfelt support and guidance can play a crucial role in helping them navigate the complex emotions associated with grief. Here are some key strategies.

Modeling Behavior

If your child is grieving, chances are you may be grieving as well. Whether you’ve lost your own parent (their grandparent), a spouse or a family friend, your child will see and possibly mimic your response to loss. It’s okay to cry and express sadness, even anger. But also remember to openly share your feelings and experiences with grief, demonstrating vulnerability and honesty. By expressing your emotions and showing your child that it's okay to grieve, you create a sense of togetherness and support.

Example: " I really miss Grandpa and feel sad, too. It's okay for us to cry together and share our favorite memories of him."

Honor Their Feelings

Take the time to truly listen and empathize with your child's feelings during the grieving process. Let them know there’s no right way to grieve, so they may feel sad, angry or confused, or even displaced if their schedules or plans have abruptly shifted. No matter what, let them know you're there to support them. Use simple, direct words when talking about death. Explain what is happening in the moment and prepare them for the services or ceremonies to come. Encourage them to talk and remember to actively listen. By creating a nurturing environment and genuinely honoring their emotions, you help children understand that grief is a natural part of healing.

Example: "I can see how much you miss Grandma, and I also know you’re sad that your playdates have been canceled. It's completely normal to feel sad or angry. I'm here to listen, and we'll get through this together."

Creating Safe Spaces Full of Love

It’s also helpful to create a “safe space” where your child can retreat when they need time alone. Designate a cozy and loving space in your home and fill it with comforting items such as blankets, stuffed animals and photos of their loved one. They’ve had the joyful innocence of childhood take an unexpected turn, and for many, it’s their first time losing someone. It’s a confusing time, and young children can sometimes blame themselves when someone close to them dies. It’s also common to have fears about what happens after death, which can result in restless nights and even nightmares. Encourage your child to use this special area whenever they need to talk 1-1 with someone, cry, escape with a book or just be alone with their thoughts.

Offering Heartfelt Words of Comfort

Just as it’s hard to speak to your own child about death, it’s difficult to know what to say to other grieving children as well. Because there is no right way or any perfect words. Let them take the lead. Listen to what they say and pay attention to their body language. Do they need a break from the sadness? Do they want to talk about it? Do they really want to be hugged? Be open, be gentle, be encouraging, be empathetic. Never tell a child how they should be feeling, avoid overly dramatic interactions and remind them they’re not alone.

Encouraging Expression through Creative Outlets

Sometimes there just aren’t enough words for grief. Guide your child in finding creative and personal ways to express their sorrow in remembering that someone is no longer with them. They can create a memory jar filled with notes about their loved one, draw pictures of their favorite memories together, or writing them a heartfelt letter.  

Sidebar:

You can help your child create a lasting and meaningful connection to their loved one by creating a personalized keepsake together. For example, thoughtfully personalize a custom memorial photo frame for their room to share a favorite photo of their loved one. You can also make a memory box to fill with special trinkets and mementos, or a personalized garden stone to place in a favorite outdoor play area.

Finally, remember that children feel most comfortable when their daily routine is predictable and familiar. Daily routines and organized structures promote healthy social, emotional and physical development. So even during times of distress, it’s important to keep to your child’s normal routine as much as possible. This includes bedtimes, meals, reading time, school and more. The more secure you make their world, the better positioned they’ll be to navigate a world that includes death and grief.

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