The death of a parent is one of the most traumatic events in a child’s life1.
According to research, in the first two years after losing a parent, children are more likely to experience psychiatric problems. Those with depression or stressors in the family are most likely to suffer from depression or other mental illnesses 2.
During this difficult time, it’s important to know how to support and help bereaved children.
How to help a grieving child
Here are some important ways the grieving parent, primary caregiver, or other adults can help the child cope during the grieving process.
Don’t avoid talking to the child about the loss of a parent or make it a taboo subject. And don’t pretend everything is normal or nothing has happened in front of your child.
Sometimes the surviving parent assumes their child is feeling a certain way or they assume they know what’s best for their child.
But different children have different ways to grieve. We don’t know exactly what they want until we ask.
So, the best way to help is to ask them how they feel, and what they need.
Encourage them to talk. But if they are not ready, respect their silence.
When they are ready to talk, listen attentively.
Children sometimes have difficulty expressing their feelings, needs, and grief. Help them put their feelings into words. Use statements such as:
“I want to be able to understand what you are feeling or thinking.”
“I need your help to understand what you are feeling.”
The loss of a parent sometimes creates difficult conversations. It is natural for adults to want to solve their children’s problems.
When they express sadness, we instinctively want to help them move on from it. We may say things like, “Don’t cry” or “Don’t be sad.”
The problem is that saying such things invalidates the child’s feelings. During this healing process, we must provide emotional support, not emotional invalidation.
Validating one’s feelings is essential for children of all ages3, but it is particularly important for children dealing with the pain of grief.
If your child expresses how they feel, acknowledge them. Do not dismiss or trivialize the emotions.
Feelings are neither right nor wrong. Do not make kids feel that having emotions is not the right thing to do.
Even though adults want to be supportive, talking to a child about death can be uncomfortable. Even adults find it difficult to discuss death with each other.
Young children may not fully comprehend the permanence of death. They may have a lot of questions.
Depending on their level of maturity and previous experiences with death, you may not want to give too much information about the death or you may need to adapt the information to the child’s maturity level.
However, telling half-truths or avoiding the subject is not a healthy way to deal with this as it hinders healing, trust, and communication4.
Help them retain good memories
Ask them about their favorite memories with the lost parent.
Help them retain the good memories that will stay with them forever, even after the parent has passed away.
These memories usually provide great comfort to children5. When this triggers good feelings, ask the child to remember how good they feel. Teach them to retrieve this memory whenever they miss their parent.
Depending on the type of loss, some children who lose one parent are anxious about the survival of the other. As a defense mechanism, they may conceal their distress from the bereaved parent.
Assure the child that they are in a safe space. They will be taken good care of and it is okay to feel and show sadness6.
It’s common for friends and family to show strong support immediately following the time of loss, but then they go about their lives without taking the time to inquire how the child is doing later.
Every child’s experience of grief is different. There is no specific time frame for “how long does it take to grieve a parent”. Some children need more time to process information and move on from this stage.
Check in with them from time to time, particularly on special occasions such as Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. Ask how they are doing. Even if you cannot do much, you are showing that you care.
What to say to a child who lost a parent
Here are some examples of comforting words for children (or a bereaved person in general).
- This must be very tough.
- How are you feeling?
- You will be in my thoughts.
- Do you want to talk?
- I’m so sorry for your loss.
- I’m here for you.
- Do you want a hug?
- Do you want to be left alone?
- Is there anything I can do for you?
- It is ok to feel sad.
- It is ok to cry. You are not weak.
- It is normal to be scared.
- Do you have any memories you want to share?
- You can come to me whenever you need to.
- I love you.
- You don’t have to talk. I will just sit next to you.
- You can talk to me any time you want.
- She loved you so much.
- You don’t have to forget her.
- She would be proud of you.
- Yes, it hurts. I’m so sorry.
- Do you have any beautiful memories you can share?
- He was an amazing person and an amazing dad.
- My heartfelt condolence.
- This must be so hard.
- It is normal to have mixed feelings.
- I am so sorry about the sad news.
Things not to say to a child who has lost a parent
- Don’t be sad. The pain will go away.
- Let it go.
- Don’t cry. Your dad needs you to be strong now.
- It’s your fault.
- Just carry on with your life.
- Time heals all wounds.
- Now you have to be a big girl.
- Crying won’t help.
- Your mother wouldn’t want to see you cry.
- Your mother’s passing is a blessing since she no longer suffers.
Final thoughts on what to say to a child who lost a parent
The death of a parent is hard on both younger and older children. Research shows that grieving family members are at an increased risk for depression and posttraumatic stress disorder7.
The best thing to do if the child’s reaction is unusually sad or if it appears they cannot get out of the sadness for a long time is to seek professional help, such as a clinical psychologist or therapist.
- 1.Coddington RD. The significance of life events as etiologic factors in the diseases of children—II a study of a normal population. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. Published online June 1972:205-213. doi:10.1016/0022-3999(72)90045-1
- 2.CEREL J, FRISTAD MA, VERDUCCI J, WELLER RA, WELLER EB. Childhood Bereavement: Psychopathology in the 2 Years Postparental Death. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Published online June 2006:681-690. doi:10.1097/01.chi.0000215327.58799.05
- 3.SOFKA CJ. SOCIAL SUPPORT “INTERNETWORKS,” CASKETS FOR SALE, AND MORE: THANATOLOGY AND THE INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY. Death Studies. Published online November 1997:553-574. doi:10.1080/074811897201778
- 4.Heath MA, Leavy D, Hansen K, Ryan K, Lawrence L, Gerritsen Sonntag A. Coping With Grief. Intervention in School and Clinic. Published online May 2008:259-269. doi:10.1177/1053451208314493
- 5.Corr CA. Bereavement, Grief, and Mourning in Death-Related Literature for Children. Omega (Westport). Published online June 2004:337-363. doi:10.2190/0ruk-j18n-9400-bhav
- 6.Black D. Coping with loss: Bereavement in childhood. BMJ. Published online March 21, 1998:931-933. doi:10.1136/bmj.316.7135.931
- 7.Melhem NM, Walker M, Moritz G, Brent DA. Antecedents and Sequelae of Sudden Parental Death in Offspring and Surviving Caregivers. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. Published online May 1, 2008:403. doi:10.1001/archpedi.162.5.403