Helpful Things to Say to a Grieving Child
There will always be someone to love you and take care of you
– Often when someone close to a child dies, the child becomes frightened that their significant caretakers will die too. It is important to reassure the child that they will always be loved and taken care of. It is also helpful to name all the people in the child’s life that love him or her and will be there to take of the child.
You must feel very ________ (sad, frightened, confused, angry, etc.) right now
– It is helpful to try to focus in on what feeling the child is specifically exhibiting at the moment rather than speaking in abstract generalizations, such as saying, “in time you will feel better” since children can’t comprehend abstract statements like that and need to be spoken to in concrete terms. Also sometimes children don’t understand how they are feeling so it is helpful to name their feelings for them.
I’m sorry, I don’t know the answer to that. I wonder about that too
– Children value being told the truth, so answers like these are more comforting to children than being given an explanation that we ourselves don’t quite believe. Children can sense our doubts. White lies, no matter how well intended, can create uneasiness and distrust. You can also suggest ways you and the child can come up with answers together.
I like remembering how kind and thoughtful your Grandpa was, but there were times I got angry at him too
– It is important not to create a “saint” out of the deceased and remember him as the total person he was. This will help prevent creating uncomfortable feelings in children which can happen if they feel their perspective or reality of the deceased person is being invalidated.
Things Not to Say to a Grieving Child
When someone dies it is like they are sleeping
– Statements like these can cause children to be afraid to go to sleep
It is like Grandma went away on a trip
– Since at certain ages, children do not realize that death is permanent, telling a child this may make them think that their loved one will come back at some point. Also telling a child this may wind up making them afraid when other people they love go away (even on short trips to a store, or overnight) they may never come back.
God wanted your baby brother in heaven because he was so good
– When children hear a statement like this, it may make them wonder why God wanted their brother and not them; or the child may not want to be good because they fear that then God would take him/her away too.
Your Mom’s at peace now
– A statement like this can do harm to a child if they feel they misbehaved or in some way feel they caused the death of the person, which is very common at certain ages.
Lending a Hand to a Grieving Child
-Create a sense of safety for children by showing you are there to help and guide them.
-Reassure children that there will always be someone to take care of them.
-Help children maintain a connection to the deceased (e.g. plan special ways of remembering or honoring the person like making a memory box, or planning a memorial)
-Encourage children to talk about the person and create a space where they can feel comfortable talking about both the positive and negative aspects of the deceased person.
-Respect each child’s coping style and each child’s own timetable of grief in order to help the child feel his/her grief is validated.
-Help children to make meaning of and learn from their experiences.
-Help children to break their grief up into manageable segments so they are not overwhelmed.
-Allow children to express their feelings and keep re-assuring them that any feeling they have is OK.
-Help children realize that loss is not something that is “gotten over” but dealing with a loss is the process of learning how to incorporate the loss into a new lifestyle.