7 Tangible Ways to Talk to Your Kids About Grief and Loss
This piece was created for Cubby, our weekly newsletter for families at home. Want more? Sign up here for a weekly splash of fun and good ideas for families with kids. Join us over on Instagram for more!
Cubby: A Weekly Newsletter for Families at Home
Whether you need smart solutions or fresh ideas, our editors at Kitchn and Apartment Therapy are here with our best meal plans, organizing and design tips, toy recommendations, and more.
Of all the parenting moments that have sent me reeling, my 3-year-old asking what her great-grandmother would eat while buried inside her coffin certainly takes the cake.
At the time, I was both grieving and woefully unprepared to explain the concept of death to a preschooler. Her question stung in a way that still surprises me.
Jaymie Byron is a Community Outreach, Crisis Response & Education Director, and expert with Parent Lab. She says questions like my daughter’s are commonplace in the wake of loss, especially with our youngest grievers. A preschooler may not be able to grasp the permanence of death, asking a lot of questions that may seem painful to the adults around them, she and her team say. It’s not that they are trying to be hurtful — they simply don’t understand.
So, how can parents help explain the concepts of death and dying in a way that doesn’t scare them stiff? Read on for 7 ways to navigate these conversations.
Be Open and Honest
Byron says the best way to broach the subject and address your child’s questions is to speak honestly and use concrete, simple explanations. Avoid phrases like, “passed away,” “gone to a better place,” or “went to sleep” — the last of which can be both confusing and scary for kids. Byron says words like, “death, dying, and died” are straightforward and easier for kids to grasp — especially when you can explain that when someone dies, it means their life has ended.
Sure, death and loss are difficult to discuss with our kids, but these conversations are necessary to healthy development.
“Shielding a child from information you deem as ‘too painful’ will leave [them] to process complicated information on their own,” says Stacey Sassine, a Grief Support Specialist and founder of One Million Monarchs, an organization dedicated to childhood bereavement. “Consistent, truthful information will help build trust and allow the child to feel comfortable approaching you with questions, or to express how they’re feeling.”
Don’t Hide Your Own Feelings
If you’re tempted to put on a brave face and hide your grief from your child—don’t. Kids gain a lot when they can see us processing our feelings in healthy ways. Being open and sharing your own feelings with your child can help them make sense of their emotions, as well as validate their feelings, says Byron and the Parent Lab team.
If you find you cannot cope with your own grief, seek support from a mental health professional. As with any moment in parenting, taking care of yourself will allow you to better tend to your child’s needs, too.
Give Your Child the Right Tools
“Books, art therapy, and exercises that encourage the expression of feelings associated with loss can be very helpful when a child is experiencing grief,” says Sassine. Titles like, The Fall of Freddy the Leaf, The Invisible String, and Grandad’s Island, can help little ones approach the topic of death in a way that’s gentle and easy to understand.
What’s more, there are child-specific grief counseling programs all across the country, from traditional therapy, to support groups, to creative programs like the Chicago Auditorium Theater’s Hearts to Art Summer Camp that seeks to unite grieving kids through arts programming.
Have a Plan for Special Occasions
Following the loss of a loved one, Sassine encourages parents to plan how their family will mark special occasions like birthdays and holidays. “In many cases, I’ll encourage families to do something so drastically different from how the day is traditionally celebrated that there are fewer opportunities to slip into despair,” she says.
Sassine often recommends celebrating their loved one in a special way, like volunteering for a cause they held dear. “Include your children in these plans and involve them in projects like creating a memory box or making a special holiday ornament to remember their loved one,” she adds.
Take the DIY Route Toward Remembrance
While it’s important to allow little ones space to feel sad, encouraging them to also celebrate and honor their loved ones can help ease them through the grieving process. Byron suggests working alongside your child to make a photo album, or even a quilt, pillow, or stuffed animal from a special piece of clothing. A special item, food, scent, or place that reminds them of their loved one is a practical way to help.
Keep Consistent, As Much As Possible
Losing someone close to you can come with a lot of changes, from cleaning out a grandparent’s home to moving after the loss of a parent. Sassine advises that parents keep consistent as much as possible, continuing after school activities and hobbies your child enjoys and staying connected to friends.
Make Space for a Range of Emotions
“When you have children in your home who are grieving, it’s important to model that life is about all the ups and downs and we’re entitled to all the feelings… not just the bad ones,” says Sassine. She encourages parents to show their kids what it means to experience a moment of peace or happiness in the midst of grief. Laugh at a funny joke, bask in the beauty of a sunset, or enjoy a delicious meal together.
Supporting a little one through grief and loss can look different every day. As Byron and the Parent Lab team reminds parents, your child may want something concrete at the moment, or they may just need you to hold space for them. Let them know you’re there to support them, whatever they need at the moment.
And if your child is struggling and their loss is impacting their daily routines, it’s always a wise choice to find a grief counselor for added support.