The death of a parent is one of the most traumatic events a child experiences1.
In the first two years after losing a parent, children are more likely to experience psychiatric problems. Children with depression or stressors in the family are most likely to suffer from depression or other mental illnesses2.
During this difficult time, it’s important to know how to support and help a child who experiences death of a parent.
How to help a grieving child
Here are some things parents and other adults can do to help a bereaved child get through the grieving process.
Don’t avoid talking to the child about death. And don’t pretend everything is normal or nothing has happened.
Sometimes, the surviving parents assume their children are feeling a certain way, they assume they know what’s best for the children, and they assume children do not want to talk about it.
But different children have different needs. We don’t know exactly what they want until we ask.
So, ask them how they feel, and what they need, and encourage them to talk. However, if they are not ready to talk yet, respect their silence.
When they are ready to talk, listen attentively.
Children sometimes have difficulty expressing their feelings, needs, and grief. You can help by putting 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.”
It is natural for adults to want to solve their children’s problems. When children express sadness, we naturally want to help them move on from it. We say things like, “Don’t cry” or “Don’t be sad.”
The problem is that saying such things invalidates a child’s feelings.
Emotional validation is essential for children at all stages of life3, but it is particularly important for children dealing with the pain of brief.
If the child expresses their feelings, acknowledge them. Do not dismiss or try to trivialize them.
Feelings are neither right nor wrong. Do not make them feel that their emotions are wrong.
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 meaning of death. Depending on their level of maturity and previous experiences with death, you may not want to give too many details of death or you may need to adapt the information to the child’s maturity level.
However, telling half-truths or avoiding the subject hinders healing, trust, and communication4.
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 move on from this stage.
Check-in with them from time to time and ask how they are doing. Even if you are not doing much, you are showing that you care.
What to say to a child who lost a parent
- 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.
Things not to say to a child who has lost a parent
- Don’t think about it. It’ll 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 like nothing happened.
- You’ll forget this soon.
- Now you have to be a big girl.
- Crying won’t help.
- You mother wouldn’t want to see you cry.
- Your mother’s passing is a blessing since she no longer suffers.
- 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