Focus on the Family

Healthy Grief

What can you do to help children when they lose a grandparent, friend, sibling or parent?

by T. Suzanne Eller

0- to 3-year-olds

Children under age 3 do not understand death, but they do grasp the concept of "here" or "not here." For toddlers, use words that will explain why the loved one is not "here" in concrete terms. "Daddy was very sick, and he is no longer here."

The most important thing in young children's lives during this time is consistency. Pay careful attention to physical needs, such as proper rest and nutrition. Then let children know through affirming words and actions that they will be cared for and safe.

4- to 7-year-olds

Beth K. Vogt's son Josh was 4 when his grandmother died. Josh wanted to know how NaNa knew the directions to get to heaven. Beth told him Jesus helped NaNa get there.

Josh looked at her and then into the sky and asked, "Mom, is Jesus an astronaut?"

When loss affects 4- to 7-year-olds, they often become verbal, asking where the person went and why. They may believe death is temporary and expect their loved one to return. When children realize their loss is permanent, they may become clingy, throw tantrums, wet the bed or suck their thumb. Normal behavior will return in time, but children need to figure out how to express their grief in a more positive manner.

Be patient with their temporary behavior, but give them an opportunity to express their grief in more creative ways, such as making a book out of photos of their loved one. When kids can work with the photos and add words, they are learning to face their loss and say or write things that have formerly been kept inside. To help them in their process, you can read their book out loud with them and ask them if they want to add anything. The book becomes a tangible, touchable reminder of their loved one.

8- to 12-year-olds

When Teresa Grigg's daughter died, her son Ryan was at the hospital the last few days before her death. He and his cousin played in the waiting room or the hospital playroom. When Mallory unexpectedly died, he felt guilty for playing. His sister was younger, and they had a lot of fusses with each other. He struggled with these additional feelings of guilt.

It's not unusual for children this age to personalize the death of a loved one. Teresa says, "We let Ryan know that it was normal for brothers and sisters to fuss. We let him know that she did not die because he didn't give her more attention or because he was playing at the hospital. We assured him, not just one time, but many times."

Parents can help tweens celebrate the life of their loved one by planting a flower or tree in their own yard. The plant is a reminder that the person actually did live.

Parents can also do the things their child liked to do with the loved one and do it together to make new memories. At holidays, such as Christmas, the family can make an ornament to honor the loved one, and celebrate the loved one's birthday in gratitude for the time they had that person in their life.

Teens

Concerned adults hugged the 16-year-old and asked questions. The quiet teenager struggled with losing his dad and wanted life to be normal again. He was angry. He hadn't had time to process his own feelings, much less comfort or assure adults or family members that he was going to be "OK."

When a teen loses someone he loves, he often assumes an adult role. Explain that it's OK not to have or know the right words, to feel a lot of different emotions and to mourn his changing world. Then make sure he knows you are available when he is ready to talk.

The first few days after a death and the holiday periods are often the most difficult times for a grieving teen. Here are two ways to help teens through these times:

  1. Give teens a video camera. When visitors arrive or ask probing questions, teens can ask a friend or family member to share a special memory instead of answering their questions. Behind the camera, the focus is shifted from the teen to a special or fun memory.
  2. As a holiday approaches, come up with a new tradition that honors the person — your relationship — and nurtures a sense of family.

A Harvard University study lists four tasks that all children, no matter their age, need to deal with concerning grief:

Teresa Griggs concludes, "Don't expect children to get over it in a few days, or even a few weeks. When children lose a loved one, their lives are changed. Grief is truly a process."