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Ways to Help a Child Cope with a Death or a Loss

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Updated: November 28, 2006

Photograph of a Mother and Son Sharing a Hug
A Reassuring Hug
© Joel Terrell. Royalty Free Use.

Help a Child Cope with Death

    Children are highly resilient.
    Even if deeply affected by a death or a loss most children will recover on their own in a short time.

    Kirsti A. Dyer, MD, MS

Routines and Schedules

  • Keep the routine as close to normal as possible. This allows a child to feel more familiar and therefore more secure and in control.
  • Children can grieve a change in the normal schedule.
  • As much as possible, try to arrange to the child to stay with people with whom they feel most familiar e.g. grandparent, aunt, uncle, trusted family friend.

Reassurance and Reaffirm Relationships

  • Following a death or a loss, a child may become more clingy and dependent. One of their greatest fears is being abandoned by their parent (or remaining parent).
  • Give the child extra hugs or cuddling if needed. Remember hugs can also benefit the grieving adults.
  • The child may feel dependent at night. Let the child keep the light on at night or not sleep alone. The child may return to sleeping with a favorite teddy bear or blanket as a comfort source.
  • Try not to complain about their clinging behavior. They are looking for reassurance during a difficult time.

Reactions and Feelings

  • Following a death, loss or tragic event children may express their feelings and react in different ways e.g. withdraws, sadness, anger aggression, especially in the early phases.
  • Some children may appear not to have been affected by the events.
  • Children are unable to be with a painful response for very long, before they shift and need to do something else. This does not mean that they do not grieve; they may grieve in small increments of time.
  • Some may have delayed reactions that may take days, weeks or months to manifest. How parents and other adults react makes a difference to how your child recovers from the trauma.

Reminiscing and Talking about Fears or the Death

  • Give the child a chance to talk about any fears they may have. Be sure to listen when they express their fears. These fears may be very real to the child.
  • Use concrete terms to explain death. Say that "____________" died.
  • Avoid terms such as "passed on," "departed," "lost" or "went to sleep" Children are very concrete in their thinking and may want to go in search of someone who was "lost" or fear going to sleep may lead to death.
  • Answer their questions about death simply and honestly.
  • Find out what they know or think they know and then only offer details that they can absorb. A child may be more aware of what is going on than you think.
  • Allow the child time to talk about the deceased, but do not push the child to talk about his or her feelings.

Remembering and Creative Ways to Express the Death or Loss

  • Paint, draw, or write about the loss.
  • Write a letter to the person who has died.
  • Plant a tree.
  • Make a poster or collage with drawings, pictures and thoughts.
  • Tell or write stories about the loss or person who has died.
  • Build or create something in memory of the person.
  • Let the child play and "be a kid" as a way of running off the grief and anxiety he/she may be feeling.

_______________________________


© 2006 Kirsti A. Dyer MD, MS, FT. Licensed for use to About.com

Resources:
Dyer K. Coping Strategies for Children. 2002. 4 November 2006 <http://www.journeyofhearts.org/jofh/grief/kids_cope>
Dyer K. Coping Strategies for Children. 2003. Presentation for Summerville Participating Parent Nursery School.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Fast Fact #8. Children and Grief. July 2004. 4 November 2006. <http://aacap.org/page.ww?name=Children+and+Grief&section=Facts+for+Families>
National Mental Health Association. Helping Children Cope With Loss. 2001. 4 November 2006. <http://www.nmha.org/index.cfm?objectid=C7DF9628-1372-4D20-C884BF860DEF0A67>
Doka KJ, ed. Living with Grief: Children, Adolescents, and Loss. Washington D.C.: Hospice Foundation of America, 2000.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Fast Fact # 36. Helping Children After a Disaster. July 2004. 4 November 2006. <http://aacap.org/page.ww?name=Helping+Children+After+A+Disaster&section=Facts+for+Families>
National Institute of Mental Health. Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters. 2001. 4 November 2006. <http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/violence.cfm>


Image. Joel Terrell. Mother and Son Moment. Royalty Free Use. No Restrictions.

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