Helping a Child Through Loss

Over the past decade of working with families at their time of loss, I have often been asked how to tell a child that someone they love has died. It seems like a tough question to answer, but actually it’s rather simple because we’ve consistently found that children understand a lot more than we think. In fact, children can and often do handle the news of death better than adults.

If someone close to a child has died, it is best to tell them as soon as possible. Because news of death travels so quickly, parents who delay telling their children run the risk that it will be heard from someone else. This will often lead to more hurt feelings and shock later. Once you have told a child that someone has died, take the time to explain what will happen next. Talk openly and gently about the visitation, the memorial service and even the burial, before these events occur. It is also a good idea to take your children to the remembrance events, but do not force them to attend as grieving is a uniquely personal process.

Like adults, children need to grieve to accept that death has occurred and then attempt to move forward with their lives. Your child will take cues from you, so do not be afraid to express your own grief. Talk to them and encourage him or her to talk as well. If a child wants to talk about the decedent, engage in an open, honest conversation and share fond memories.

It is also recommended that you and your children be allowed to cry openly. Do not encourage children to try and be brave by not crying. If you feel the need to cry, do so as children mirror trusted adults and will be more likely to feel comfortable crying. And remember to hug and hold your children to comfort them.

Help your child understand that his or her relationship to the decedent has not ended, it has changed. After the services, keep pictures and other reminders around to spark conversations with your child. This will help form a new set of emotional bonds with the person who died. Most importantly, be patient with yourself and with your children as there is no ‘normal’ or ‘correct’ way to grieve. Of course conversations about death with children can feel awkward. Therefore, find comfort in knowing that your arrangement counselor can provide you with guidance and resources to help you through difficult times.

A wonderful program for the community can be found at Jessica’s House. Jessica’s House formally opened in April of 2012 as a place where children, teens and their parents can go to learn to cope with the loss of a loved one. Emanuel Medical Center leased and remodeled an 87-year-old home on East Main Street in Turlock where trained volunteers & staff work to provide a safe environment that enables those suffering from a loss a place to find their own path through the recovery process. For more information about Jessica’s House, visit their website at