How Adults Can Help Children in Times of Grief

(Adapted from material presented by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Founder and Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado. He is a respected grief counselor and author, known throughout the world for his compassionate messages of hope and healing in grief. Visit his website at: http://www.centerforloss.com).

How adults respond when a loved one dies has a major effect on the way children react to death. Sometimes parents don’t want to talk about death and assume this will spare children some of the pain and sadness. The reality is that children will grieve anyway. To help them through grief, parents or other adult caregivers need to establish a relationship in which the death may be talked about openly. Children need to understand that grief is a natural feeling when someone they love has died.

Children also need confirmation from adults that it is all right to be sad and to cry, and that the hurt they feel won’t last forever. When ignored, children may suffer more from feeling isolated than from the death itself.

The first step in establishing a help-healing relationship is to listen carefully to what children are saying. Allow them to do the teaching; you provide the support, love, and understanding they need. As children express their feelings, adults need to respond with warmth and sensitivity.

  • Be aware of tone of voice and body language
  • Maintain eye contact
  • Assure them their feelings will be accepted
  • Listen without judging or criticizing

The Importance of Empathy

Empathy means being able to recognized a child’s inner feelings from the child’s point of view. Adults communicate empathy when grieving children feel understood and supported. To let children know their feelings are understood helps them feel secure, trusted, and affirmed. Empathy is the essence of a helping-healing relationship, providing a number of positive benefits:

Children are more likely to share deep, personal feelings.

Children feel more secure in a trusting environment.

Children are able to explore puzzling feelings and grow towards understanding and reconciliation.

Guidelines for Involving Children in the Funeral

Although children may not completely understand the funeral ceremony, adults should help them be part of this experience. It helps establish a sense of comfort and understanding that life goes on even though someone has died. It also helps to establish empathy and demonstrates that adults understand and respect the emotional needs of grieving children. Further, it gives children the needed opportunity to mourn their loss.

They should be allowed to attend but never forced. Parents should explain the purpose of the funeral – it is a time to support and comfort each other, as well as a time to honor the life and cherish the memories of the person who died. Funerals provide a unique opportunity for the natural expression of grief and allow those who attend to say “thank you” for the privilege of knowing and caring for the person died.

Parents should keep the following in mind:

While children should be encouraged to attend, they must feel that have been given a genuine choice.

Children need to know ahead of time what they will see and experience at the funeral (flowers, who will be coming, how long the service is likely to last, etc.)

Children need to be prepared for the emotions that will be expressed during the funeral. Let them know that it is okay that people will be crying.

A child’s first visit to the funeral home should be before the service, if possible, with only a few people (family or close friends). This allows them more freedom to react and talk openly about feelings and concerns.

Before, during, and after the service, children need the physical closeness and comfort of parents and other caring adults. Words are not as important as hugs.

Adults should anticipate that children may show little, if any, outward sign of grief during the funeral. This apparent lack of externalized emotion does not mean they are unaffected by the death.

Adults need to be good observers of children’s behavior during the funeral and realize the importance of patience and empathy.

In a quiet time after the funeral, encourage children to talk about the experience, allowing them to express themselves and ask questions.

Additional Guidelines for Caring Adults

Be good observers. Listen more than you speak. It is often more helpful to ask exploring questions than to give quick answers.

When describing the death of a loved one, use simple direct language.

Be honest. Express personal feelings about the death. By doing so, children have a model for expressing their own feelings.

Allow children to express a full range of feelings. Anger, guilt, despair, and protest are natural reactions during grief.

Don’t expect children’s reactions to be obvious and immediate at the time of death. Be patient and available.

Recognize that no one procedure or formula will fit all children. Be patient, flexible, and adjust to individual needs.

Adults must explore their own personal feelings about death. Until they consciously examine their own concerns, doubts, feats, and sadness about death it will be difficult to support children when someone loved has died.

Final Thoughts

For children, the journey through grief is complex, and each child’s journey is unique. Caring adults need to communicate to children that these feeling are not something to be ashamed of or to hide. Instead, grief is a natural expression of love for the person who has died. As Zig Ziglar said, “Grief is the price we pay for having loved someone.”

The challenge for caring adults is clear. Children do not choose between grieving and not grieving. But adults do have a choice – to help or not help children cope with grief. With education, love, and understanding, help-healing adults can guide children through this vulnerable time and make it a valuable part of a child’s personal growth and development.