Losing a loved one is a traumatic experience at any age, and it can be especially difficult with children. We talked with the Child Life Specialist team at Baylor University Medical Center. Child Life Specialists support children through psychosocial and emotional coping during the stressors of medical experiences. Baylor’s team has worked with thousands of families in traumatic situations. They helped us write this list for children who lose a loved one, whether a parent, family member or friend.
Special thanks to Mary Catherine Miller and Tricia Price, Palliative Care Child Life Specialists at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas.
Read below to see what not to say, what to say and other things to consider.
What Not to Say:
“Your loved one has gone to sleep.”
One of the most commonly used phrases is that someone who is dying or has died “is asleep.” This can be detrimental for two reasons: One, it implies that their loved one will wake up soon and be fine. Two, sleeping is something a child does every night so this phrasing could incite fear that they too could “go to sleep” at any point and be in this state.
“At least you still have your dad” (or any other surviving caregiver).
Meant to be comforting, this can minimize the pain and grief of losing a loved one. While surviving caregivers are vital, they are not going to take away the pain of losing a loved one. Children, like adults, need their pain and grief to be validated instead of minimized.
Children, like adults, need their pain and grief to be validated instead of minimized.
“They’re in a better place.”
Sometimes children can be confused about being told that their loved one is “going to heaven,” and wondering when that person will be coming back, as they don’t understand the permanence of bodily death.
If you do want to talk about heaven, then you might say something like, “Granny’s body is going to stop working, her body will die, but we believe she’s going to be in heaven.” Children need help distinguishing between earth and heaven, so it is valuable to clarify first that there will be a bodily death before you talk about heaven.
“You’re the man of the house now.”
This can put pressure on children to fill the role of their loved one who died. The Baylor Child Life Specialist team worked with a 6-year-old son whose dad died from a heart attack, and he was told he’s “the man of the house now.” Later, it came to light that this child deeply believed it was expected of him to leave school, find a job, earn money and pay the bills.
This is an example of how a small statement can be misinterpreted by a young child and have such a large impact. Children are not equipped to take on the role of an adult, and you don’t want to insinuate that they should become an adult too early.
“You just need to take your mind off it. Your mom wouldn’t want you to be sad.”
This statement has two issues: One, distraction does not replace healthy processing of emotions. Two, we should never project emotions, whether positive or negative, onto a child on behalf of the deceased person.
Children should feel safe and validated to experience any emotion they are facing, whether it is sad, angry, afraid or even relieved. When you project emotions on behalf of a deceased person, a child can feel guilty about disappointing their deceased loved one. Implying that any emotion in grief is wrong can be damaging to a child’s mourning process.
“I’m sorry your loved one died.”
For small children, saying “sorry” can imply that you had some involvement or control in the situation. Children learn to say sorry when they’ve done something wrong, and it may confuse a small child for you to say sorry. Instead of saying “I’m sorry your loved one died,” consider saying, “I’m sad your loved one died,” or “I’m sorry you all are going through such a tough time.”
What to Say:
1. Call it what it is.
If you have to tell a child that a loved one has died, then it is important not to avoid the truth. A dad once asked the Baylor Child Life Specialist Team whether he could tell his 5-year-old son that “Mom went away and is on vacation” until the child grew older and the dad would tell the child the truth “in a few years.”
Discussing the painful truth is actually better than talking about “vacation,” as this scenario could be hugely destructive for many reasons, but particularly, their sense of abandonment from this scenario—as if their mom chose to go away and never come back because she does not love them anymore.
Even in the most traumatic events, children need close adults to help them process the situation through talking about it instead of avoiding it. Avoidance only contributes to their already existent sense of isolation, fear and possible shame.
Give children a safe space to ask questions.
2. Keep it simple.
When you interact with a child who has faced a huge loss, there is a temptation to say a lot. Perhaps keep it simple.
“I heard your mom died. That sounds really tough. Can I give you a hug?” If they seem receptive, you might add, “Do you want to talk about it or tell me what it has been like for you lately?”
3. Be authentic.
Instead of saying, “I’m sure your grandma was such an amazing person,” even though you had never met her, you can say, “Tell me about what your grandma was like.”
When appropriate, share memories or stories from your time with their loved one, things like, “I loved your mom’s laugh.”
4. Give permission for a wide spectrum of feelings.
“After someone dies, it is normal to feel lots of different things. You can always talk to me about how you’re feeling. There might be some moments where you feel very sad, angry, back-to-normal, guilty, happy or confused. Whatever you’re feeling, I want you to know it’s okay to feel that way, and you can always talk about it with me.”
It is good to normalize an array of healthy coping techniques by saying things like, “If you’re feeling scared and you want a hug, then I’d love to give you one,” or “If you’re feeling angry, then you can let it out by stomping in the backyard,” or “If you’re feeling sad and you want to review photos of your loved one, we can remember those memories together whenever you want.”
Things to consider:
1. Age matters.
Children who are old enough to love are old enough to grieve. Thus, we acknowledge that a child of every age grieves the death of a loved one in some form or fashion. Albeit, how this grief manifests itself will look different across the developmental spectrum. Children process loss in regards to how it impacts their world.
Children who are old enough to love are old enough to grieve.
A young infant may grieve the loss of a caregiver without that person’s nurturing voice, comforting touch and stability of routine. Maintaining routine as much as possible and increasing physical comfort and attention can be vital here.
A toddler may grieve the loss through a sense of abandonment or instability in their world, thus, demonstrating regression in milestones. Explaining to the child in a simple, concrete way about their loved one’s death along with clarification that the child has not done anything wrong to impact the death, as well as increased patience with the child’s behaviors, regression and/or repetitive questions about their loved one can be helpful.
Younger children may seem unaffected at times, due to their playfulness. This does not mean they’re over the loss or not processing it, as children typically display grief through their behaviors and cope through play. A school age child may grieve the loss through worries about death, and emotional lability as they grow in their articulation of emotions and coping. A caring adult who can help reflect a child’s evident emotions, assist them with problem-solving to establish healthy coping techniques and ensure that communication is clear and open so as to maintain trust with the surviving parent and child is crucial.
A teenager may grieve the loss through how it makes them stand out when they prefer to fit in amongst peers, as well as anticipatorily grieving the milestones their loved one will be absent from, like birthdays and holidays. A caregiver can support them in many ways:
- giving them frequent choices regarding involvement with their dying loved one
- incorporation of peers for social support
- limiting how much individualized attention is placed on the teenager in front of peers
- the option to be incorporated in the funeral planning/services
2. Children can grieve people who are not blood relatives.
It’s important to remember that children form emotional connections outside family, and children will grieve losing someone they are emotionally connected to like a friend or neighbor. It is certainly important to help children grieve the loss of a peer or friend.
Children might grieve a teacher or principal of their school who was a strong advocate and leader of their school. Children might grieve a neighbor who welcomed all the neighborhood’s kids over after school.
Have you walked with a child through the death of a loved one? What would you add to this list?
Illustration via Henzel Illustrations