April 12 2019

Losing a loved one: How to help your child heal

The loss of a loved one—whether a parent, grandparent, sibling, relative, neighbor or friend—can be devastating for a child. Parents are often left wondering: How can I help my child grieve?

We wish that we could protect our children from feeling any pain, but some situations are inevitable. Unfortunately, at one point or another, every family will have to deal with a loved one’s passing. That much we can’t avoid—but what we can do is prepare. And we can guide our children through the grief to help them emerge stronger on the other side.

For young children, grief and other strong feelings can be confusing. Your role is to help your child manage their feelings. It’s empathizing with them. It’s focusing on positive memories of your loved one and healing the pain—together.

To help your child process their pain and begin on the road to recovery, you can:

  • Put yourself in your child’s shoes. Try to understand what this trauma must feel like for them. They might feel stress, anxiety, depression, anger, sadness or a wide range of other emotions. This may be your child’s first encounter with death; imagine how confused they may feel. Do you remember how you felt as a child when you lost someone you loved? Use your own memory to empathize. If you feel it would benefit your child, you can even share your memories with them—but keep your ultimate focus on your child’s experience. Be sure to listen to their needs.
  • Acknowledge that death and loss are upsetting. Losing a loved one can result in stress and emotional trauma. But reassure your child that having upset feelings is perfectly natural for everyone, regardless of age or sex.
  • Encourage your child to express their grief, frustration, fears and anger. Again, reassure them that these are all normal reactions to losing a loved one. You can even encourage them to express their feelings in creative ways:
  • Make sure your child knows you’re paying attention to their feelings. It’s crucial for a grieving child to feel supported, seen, heard and loved—not ignored or criticized for how they’re reacting. You can show your child that you’re listening by repeating back what they say to you. For instance, you could reply, “It sounds like you’re angry that your dad isn’t here. It sounds like you feel guilty that you didn’t save him.” This also serves to validate your child’s feelings.
  • Demystify the circumstances surrounding the loss. In an age-appropriate and developmentally-appropriate way, help your child make sense of what happened. They should understand that the loss was real; it wasn’t fiction. You can use a technique called narrative exposure therapy, in which you ask your child to reconstruct a sequence of events or describe a summary of what they experienced. This enables them to transform their feelings into words and put them into context. (However, it is important to note that while this method can help some children organize their thoughts about the loss, some children find that it can expose wounds and cause more damage. Refrain from asking them to reconstruct their story unless they are willing to do so. You know your child best; monitor them closely to determine if you think this technique will be helpful or harmful.)

  • Help your child feel like a survivor, not a victim. When working through your child’s grief, emphasize their strength for going through it. It’s been tough, but they’re surviving! They’re beating these painful emotions, slowly but surely. Framing your conversations about the loss in this way can help your child replace feelings of helplessness with feelings of power. And reclaiming this confidence can make them feel strong enough to handle loss if it happens again.
  • Guide your child to focus on happier memories. Help shift the way your child thinks about the loss of their loved one. To begin to replace their negative emotions (like anger or sadness) with more positive ones, ask your child to recall a happy memory or feel-good moment with the deceased. The goal is to concentrate on the beautiful things about the person, because by reliving these memories, the person continues to live with you today.
  • Engage in rituals that help your child heal. If you feel your child is ready for it, do activities with them that acknowledge your loved one in a positive way. For instance, together, you can visit the cemetery to greet your loved one, put flowers on the grave, talk about the person and how your child feels and then have lunch together to ease back into ‘normal’ life. You can enjoy a meal that the person loved and even place their photo on the place where they used to sit, if it feels natural to do so. If your child is old enough, you can suggest that they write letters to their loved one. Or you can simply play with your child or go out to do something enjoyable as a family: anything that demonstrates to your child that life goes on. Even in the midst of the pain, you can teach them that they’re still able to feel happiness and normalcy. This also helps the child gain control of the situation, as opposed to the helplessness they experience while going through loss.
  • When you sense that they’re ready, encourage your child to seek closure. While it is an important part of the grieving process to feel all of the painful emotions that we feel, and to acknowledge every bit of it, eventually we must move forward with our lives in a constructive way. Encourage your child not to dwell too much on the past or on the loss because it can impact our present. You can help bring your child into the present by reminding them of the relationships they have with other people who can help fill the void they’re feeling from losing their loved one. Another technique is to ask your child to concentrate on their breaths; this teaches them that they have the power to decide what to focus on in the moment.

Of course, you may be dealing with your own pain from this loss, too. But as a parent or caregiver, the way you deal with your grief, and the way you share it with your child, affects their healing process. To best help others, you should focus on also processing your own grief. You want to be careful not to project your pain or issues onto your children.

If you’re also grieving, is it appropriate for you to share that with your child? That depends on whether you think it would help your child to know that you’re feeling sad, too—or if that would upset them more. Generally, though, it can benefit children to understand that adults have feelings. Children can also learn to model their behaviors based on how you handle your emotions, so be deliberate in your actions. If you do decide to share your feelings with your child, do so in a developmentally appropriate way that remains sensitive to their unique personality and circumstances. 

For example, you could say, “I’m also sad that Grandma passed away. I loved her chocolate cake. What do you love about Grandma?” This helps your child understand that they’re not alone in their grief and encourages them to focus on happy memories. You can even suggest that you engage in an activity together that your loved one would have enjoyed, like cooking a favorite recipe. This can help your child honor and remember the person in a positive way.

How often should you bring up the topic of your deceased love one with your child? As with many parenting decisions, this again depends on the needs of your child. Some kids won’t want to discuss it; some may want to talk about it a lot. Assess what feels right for your child’s level of comfort.

Learn more about how you can help your own children process their stress, trauma and loss.

Things to say to your child when they’re grieving:

I love you.

You’re not alone.

I’m here for you.

We can talk about this anytime you want.

It’s normal for you to feel this way.

This isn’t your fault.

You’re a strong person. You’ve already gotten through it this far.

Take as long as you need to be sad.

I’m sad, too. I understand.

We will get through this together.

Trauma therapy experts

Every day, SOS Children’s Villages helps children overcome the trauma they’ve experienced prior to being in our care, including the loss of their parents and families. We offer mental health programs and services to children, families and communities, and we train SOS mothers and caregivers to provide critical help children who may have been exposed to traumatic experiences. We also empower children to cope with their anguish through specialized trauma recovery techniques and psychological support from SOS experts in child care and mental health. For instance, in Venezuela—a country in political and economic crisis—our programs ensure that orphaned, abandoned and vulnerable children feel safe in our care. With seven decades of experience, SOS Children’s Villages works in 135 countries to ensure that all children in our programs receive appropriate care, stimulation and support to overcome traumas from their past—and build resilience and post-traumatic growth.

To read more about childhood trauma and how SOS helps children recover, click here.
For more advice to parents about how to spot signs of childhood trauma and techniques to help your child cope, click here.