How To Help A Child Through Grief – Be Honest And Don't Be Afraid To Cry

Child and adolescent psychotherapist Jane Elfer shares her tips for helping kids come to terms with loss this Grief Awareness Week.
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Dealing with a loved one’s death is extremely tough at the best of times – but trying to navigate your own complex feelings, while also helping a child process theirs, can be unimaginably challenging.

Sadly childhood bereavement is incredibly common – one survey of 11-16 year olds found 78% had been bereaved of a close relative or friend, and the Childhood Bereavement Network suggests around 26,900 parents die each year in the UK, leaving behind dependent children.

If a child loses a parent, or sibling, or even a grandparent, it can be really hard on them – but being honest about their death, rather than skirting around the issue, is important, suggests Jane Elfer, a child and adolescent psychotherapist.

And so too is looking after yourself. “It is important that the person supporting the child or young person feels supported themselves,” she says.

“It may be very hard to manage a child’s tears or fury if you are feeling vulnerable yourself. Give yourself time, allow yourself to cry if you need to and make sure that you too can talk with someone: a friend, a partner, a sibling or parents.”

Here, Elfer – who is a spokesperson for the Association of Child Psychotherapists (ACP) – shares her tips for supporting little ones and teens after loss.

1. Be honest with the child about death

When a loved one dies, tell them in age-appropriate language about the death. If you have a faith, you might wish to speak with this in mind.

Being honest is the best course of action. The child will know something bad has happened – they will notice in the way that children do, especially young children.

You may feel that you are saving them from the pain of loss but generally it only serves to confuse and frighten a child further. They will notice that a parent, sibling or grandparent is missing. They will feel alone with their worries.

Don’t be tempted to say the person is in hospital or gone somewhere else for treatment. When the secret is uncovered it will be much worse, as they will feel tricked and may feel they did not have a chance to say goodbye or do something special for that person.

There will be a more complex set of feelings if the parent, sibling or other relative has died by suicide – and in this case, it may be useful to talk to a charity like Winston’s Wish about how to support a child.

Again, the truth will help as it may allow the child to voice the frightening question of ‘was it my fault?’. This may be a question on everyone’s mind and may be a painful but helpful conversation that it was not about the child, but rather something more difficult in that person’s mind that they could not manage.

“Don’t be tempted to say the person is in hospital or gone somewhere else for treatment. When the secret is uncovered it will be much worse.”

2. Let them attend the funeral

In general, if possible, I think that this is an important ceremony. If you or a member of the family can speak about what will happen (you don’t have to go into details about cremation or burial unless they really want to know), perhaps think with them about a way to say goodbye to that person.

You might want to say that ‘mummy or daddy will always be in their heart and mind’ and that they can come for part of the funeral and leave a drawing, a flower or something like that as a part of the ceremony.

It will be a part of their grieving and yours, and the child may feel regret it if they are not supported to attend even for a small part.

If this really cannot be faced you might want to have your own ritual or ceremony that marks that person and their importance.

3. Give them space to talk about it

Allowing space for children to talk about how they feel is so important, especially when it involves the loss of a parent or sibling.

There may be feelings of guilt and anger which, when associated with someone you love, can be very hard to talk about. Normalising these uncomfortable feelings can allow a child the freedom to express love too.

The loss of a grandparent may be the child’s first experience of death and may give the opportunity to talk about feelings of sadness and love.

4. Use play to help them express their feelings

With a very small child, play may be the way that they can express or try out feelings. If you can provide little figures or perhaps little animals or dinosaurs it may help.

Sometimes a child will act out an angry scene where perhaps one of the figures or animals is hurt or killed. Let the child play this out. Try not to guide it and make it better, but comment on what you see and maybe even try to think about how the figure or animal might feel first.

If the child seems interested, maybe make a gentle suggestion: perhaps you feel like this when you think about or miss mummy, daddy, your sibling or grandparent.

Picture books about loss can also be a very useful way to talk about what has happened.

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5. Give babies lots of cuddles

Babies will also react to grief and loss and may cry more, and be difficult to settle.

If it is the mother who has died, it may mean they have to change to bottle-feeding from breastfeeding. This will be tough and again may take time and support to work through.

Do talk to the baby about the loss and don’t be afraid to be full of feelings. The baby will have a sense of you communicating and this is key.

Lots of cuddles and rocking may be needed, so seek out support from friends and family as this will be exhausting – especially when you are grieving too.

6. Make a plan with others to support the child

If you’re the child’s parent, you might want to speak to teachers and nursery practitioners about any changed behaviours and work out a plan to support them.

If it is possible to enlist help in the classroom this can make a huge difference. Maybe the child can leave the classroom with that person and a conversation can be had about the behaviour in relation to their upset, anger or despair.

With little ones this may not work, but perhaps talking to them about why they are sad or angry and providing them with water play, or sand or play dough may be a way to express feelings they don’t understand.

7. Don’t be afraid to cry with them

Weeping together and sharing memories can be helpful, bearing in mind that a child’s natural resilience may also bring this to a swifter end than the adult’s. This should not be seen as callous or uncaring but a real safety mechanism that helps the child adapt and continue with life.

Do bear in mind the child’s need to perhaps manage how much they can take in. If they run off or, in the case of an adolescent, suddenly want to go to their room, try not to be offended. It is very natural and is a young person’s way of regulating these huge and painful feelings.

8. Remember you can still laugh

This may feel difficult and wrong at first, but is also so important. Mummy, daddy, grandparent or sibling would want you to laugh at this memory.

Going out to parties or other nice activities can be encouraged when the time feels right, but do be prepared for worries to follow.

It may take time for you all to feel allowed to enjoy parts of your life again. It does not mean you or they have forgotten.

9. Don’t expect their grief to disappear

Bereavement changes over time. Your child may revisit the bereavement throughout their childhood, adolescent and young adulthood.

At key points in their lives, sadness may be present when they move up through school. Then, when they leave school altogether and face the next step you may notice that they need to reflect on their feelings about the loss of a parent.

It is the loss of a familiar place or routine that can trigger these feelings. It is not unusual and adults may also feel the loss more keenly at their wedding or at the birth of a first child.