10 Ways to Help Children Cope with Grief

10 Ways to Help Children Cope with Grief

Grief in Children

Never in a million years did I think I would need to walk my children through grief at such a young age.  Helping your children understand grief while also grieving yourself is hard.  So hard.  If you are in that place as well, my heart is with you.  My heart aches over the questions your kids will ask.  My heart aches for the brave momma who is doing her best to just survive one day at a time, while also caring for the precious, broken hearts of her babies.  

Here I am, one year out (today) from the death of my brother at age 33.  My boys were very close to him and were a part of his care throughout his battle with brain cancer.  They have struggled with their understanding of death and have asked some really hard questions along the way.  Questions that broke my heart.  They are so young.  They shouldn't have to know the kind of grief they've experienced. But they do.  And I do.  As we've walked this path and our grief has evolved over time, we've all learned coping mechanisms.  If you are walking this path too, I'd love to share with you some of the things that have helped our family as a whole on our grief journey in the hopes that they can help you as you navigate grief.

**I am not a doctor or a therapist and this is not medical or mental health advice.  This is an account of things that have worked for me and my children as we navigate our own grief.  You should always talk with your doctor and mental health professional regarding your specific situation.**

1) Find a therapist that specializes in grief.

For all of you.  Your children will benefit immensely from a therapist who specializes in grief with children.  They need that safe space to ask questions that they are afraid to ask family members.  They may be afraid to upset you and therefore not want to talk about their own grief with you.  You will benefit from having your own therapist.  Someone who can help you cope with your grief in a healthy way and teach you healthy ways to talk about grief and death with your children.  Your partner will benefit from therapy too.  They will need to know how to best support you and your children as you all charter unknown waters.  

2) Prepare your children for what happens immediately after a death.

My boys had a lot of anxiety about the funeral and what that would be like.  In order to prepare them ahead of time, we talked about what would happen at the funeral and who would be there.  If there will be a casket at the funeral, talk to your therapist about how to best prepare your child for that and whether or not it is appropriate for them to be present.

Have a backup plan if a child needs to leave.  We showed the funeral chapel to my in-laws prior to the service so that they would know where to take the boys if one of them got overwhelmed and needed to leave. 

Let them bring something comforting.  My youngest wanted to bring a stuffed animal to the funeral and we let him.  It was soothing to him to have something to hold as we had to walk down the aisle of the church in front of other people. 

3) Read books that help children understand grief.

It's reallllllly hard to come up with answers to the questions they have when your brain is in the fog of grief.  In those early days, about all I could think to say was, "I don't know."  I don't know why this happened.  I don't know when we'll be happy again.  I don't know how long I'll be too tired to play.  I don't know how long I'll forget the important things on the calendar. I don't know.  Having children's books as resources to turn to when I needed to help them understand what had happened took some of that mental load off of me.  (So did having a great therapist!) Those books helped start some really important conversations.

Here's a list of my favorite books on grief for children:

When Someone Dies: A Children's Mindful How-To Guide on Grief and Loss

The beginning of this book is geared toward more of a preschool age, but the second half of the book has some great ways for elementary aged kids to understand grief in simplistic terms.  It also offers guidance for parents and open ended questions to help you and your child discuss where they are with their grief.  Overall, this is one of my favorite children's books on grief.

The Invisible String

This is a precious book for any child coping with anxiety.  Only one page actually mentions someone who has died.  I love the message of this book.  Anxiety is so common after the death of a loved one.  This book reminds children that they are connected, loved, and safe.

The Invisible String Workbook

I particularly love this workbook.  After the death of my brother, we've struggled with separation anxiety.  This workbook provides so many great tools to help children feel connected and safe.  Connected to both loved ones that are here and that have died.  This book is a great tool to use to connect with your child and see into their mind.  It opens the door for natural conversation.  It also compliments therapy very well.

The Sad Dragon

This book is told from the perspective of a dragon who is grieving.  I love that the dragon asks hard questions and says things that I've heard my own children say.  It talks about the hard and it presents healing in a really sweet way.  This is a great book to start conversations about grief.

The Memory Box

I love the way this book explains keeping memories alive.  If you plan to make a memory box (mentioned below), this book is perfect to read before doing that.  While it is a picture book, it's great for all ages and provides opportunities to talk about memories surrounding your loved one.  The back of the book contains helpful answers for parents to questions children might have and tips for helping children process grief.

My Yellow Balloon

This is a really beautiful story that draws parallels to grief, but you will likely have to help your child understand how this relates to death and grief. There are no mentions of dying or grief in the book. 

Always Remember

This is a sweet book about the impact someone can have during their lifetime on those around them and how we always remember our loved ones.  Geared more towards preschool/kindergarten age. 

I'll Always Be There

This book is about a little girl whose Dad dies and the signs that she receives from him.  If you believe in receiving signs from loved ones who have died, this is book sweetly talks about how our loved ones can still always be with us if we look for them.


4) Use real words with your children.

Use the word died.  Our culture has such a dislike for using this word, but it's what happened.  Using phrases like "he went to sleep," "we lost him last night," etc can be very confusing for a child and cause unnecessary angst.  Will they go to sleep and never wake up too?  Will they get lost and never come back?  Dying is different from sleeping or being lost.  Dying is dying.  Tell them that your person died and describe for them whatever you believe happens upon death.  For us, that was talking about Heaven and what we think that maybe looks like for Justin now.

One other note on this.  When other adults talk to my children and one of my boys says, "My Uncle Justin died," or "He's dead now," adults are often visibly taken aback.  Like I said, our culture is not comfortable with death and grieving.  They don't know what to say and will often look to you.  Simply respond with, "Yes, that's right, he did die" and offer a warm smile.  Your child is simply stating what happened and it's not their job to make other people comfortable with death and grief.

5) Cry in front of your kids.

It's okay and even healthy to cry in front of your kids.  I was shocked when my therapist told me that.  I felt like I needed to protect them from what was happening.  But, the reality is, when you're sad, your kids know it anyway.  Not knowing why or what's happening can make them worry.  I thought I was doing a good job of protecting my kids from my sadness after my brother's diagnosis, when one day, one of them said to me, "When are you going to die of cancer, Mommy?"  That question took my breath away.  I hadn't been protecting them like I thought I had.  They knew something was wrong, and they jumped to their own conclusions.  After working through that with my therapist, I found that when I cried in front of them, they were so caring and loving.  I would say, "I am having a moment where I feel really sad about Justin, but I'll be okay."  By modeling that for them, they were able to start opening up to tell me what was worrying them or what they were sad about.  

6) Validate their feelings and reassure them.

As parents, we would do anything to not have to see our children be sad.  You'll often hear parents say, "Don't cry."  Crying is good and healthy.  It's how our bodies release stress hormones and self-soothe.  Let them cry and help them notice how their body feels after crying.  Related to how they are feeling by saying, "You know, I often feel better after a good cry."  Reassure them that it's okay to be sad or angry or lonely. This is a really sad situation and you're sad too.  They need to know that you can sit with them in their grief.  Notice that I didn't say you can fix it for them.  Because you can't.  You have to sit in your own grief and you have to sit in the grief of your children.  Reassure them that "this is really hard, but Mommy knows how to handle this because I'm a grown up."  Whether you feel like you've got this or not (hello, oftentimes I feel like I definitely DON'T got this grief thing), they need to know that they are safe.  That they don't need to worry about all the things because you're a grown up, you are there for them, and you're brave.  You know what to do.  Reassure them that all of their feelings are normal and that you are a safe place for them when they feel sad, angry, lonely, or confused.  

7) Make a memory box

Have your kids use a shoe box or tissue box to make a special memory box.  Let them decorate the outside of it with things that remind them of your person.  Help them fill it with objects or pictures (photos or pictures they've drawn) that are tied to specific memories with your person.  As they add items to the box, talk about the memories tied to each item.  Help them write down why each object is important to them so that down the road they can remember the significance of a particular item.  A memory box allows them to have their own sacred space between them and the person who died.  For young children, it helps to maintain memories they have with your person.

8) Give them a gift from your loved one.

If you have the opportunity prior to your loved one's death, I highly recommend having them make a voice recording just for your kiddo.  I had to help Justin with this.  I wrote out for him what to say and helped him record it.  At the time, it was HARD and uncomfortable to do.  But now, I'm so thankful we have those recordings.  I wish I had one for myself, too.  I had the voice recordings put into a red panda (Justin's favorite animal) at Build-A-Bear.  My boys can press the panda's paw anytime they want to hear Justin's special message to them.  They listen to them alot.  There are times where I will find one of them in their bed, just listening to his voice over and over.  If you don't have a voice recording, have your loved one give them a stuffed animal, or give your child a stuffed animal that belonged to your loved one.  Having something to physically cuddle when they are sad is so helpful.  

9) Look for ways to remember your person.

For us, it's rainbows and red pandas.  The boys carry their red pandas everywhere and look for rainbows to remember Justin.  We talk about him alot.  The things he loved, the things we loved to do with him.  We celebrated his first birthday in Heaven.  We talk about memories that make us happy and memories that make us sad.  It's all hard still, even the happy memories, but it does feel good to talk about him.  He is such an important part of our lives.

10) Learn to put your grief on the shelf and be present with your kids.

This is one of the best tools my therapist taught me. She told me to give my grief a color, a shape, and a texture.  Then take that object that you've created in your mind to represent your grief and visualize putting it on a shelf or placing it into God's hands.  You are not ignoring your grief, you will come back to it.  You are simply placing it elsewhere for a few minutes. Your kids will benefit so much from seeing glimpses of the playful, happier you.  You don't have to be super happy and over the top excited.  But, you can focus on playing a board game with them and smile.  Relax a little.  Take a breath to calm your spirit.  They'll notice.  

I hope that by sharing these things with you, you don't feel quite as lost as you did before reading this.  In those first days and weeks especially, it is so, so hard to navigate your own grief while also trying to navigate the grief of those around you.  I hope this gives you tangible steps that you can take to support yourself and your children.  Hugs.


Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.