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Children’s grief, like adult grief, is a process. Children feel and show a range of emotions when they grieve. Feelings may include sadness, anger, guilt, or denial.
Children who are grieving may:
Children often “self-regulate” information flow. They may ask a question, listen to the answer, then go back to play right away as they process what they just heard.
These feelings and behaviors are normal responses to grief.
Talking about a child’s death with other children can be one of the hardest things for parents to do. Parents must consider each child's ability to understand death and its permanence. How a child processes this information depends on several factors. These include age, stage of development, and life experiences.
These conversations are not easy. But parents can do some things to begin the discussions.
Knowing what to expect gives children a sense of security. For many children, the death of sibling is one of the first times that they have experienced real loss and grief.
While dealing with their own new emotions, children must cope with seeing parents' responses. This can sometimes make children uncertain or afraid. Children also don't understand the practical concerns that families must deal with after death.
It is important for children to have a sense of what will happen. This can lessen their questions and worries.
After the death of a brother or sister, children may have concerns that lack easy answers. Parents can try to plan for questions their children might have.
Children often feel a sense of guilt when a sibling has died. It is important to let children know they are not to blame. They should not feel guilty for what happened. Approaches to discussing this include:
In most cases, the cause of cancer is unknown. But that does not stop parents from asking why it happened. The same is true for children. A few ways of responding could be:
If families believe in an afterlife, parents might talk about what this new place might be like. Some children find comfort in discussing who else might be there and what they are doing.
Families who do not believe in an afterlife might share something like, “When our bodies stop working, they go back to the earth and become a part of the world we share with the plants and animals.”
Learning what children think happens after someone dies can comfort parents as well. This discussion can also be a chance to clear up mistaken ideas. Storybooks that match family values and beliefs can also help parents talk to children about death. Parents might say something like:
It is not uncommon for a sibling to ask, “Will I see my brother or sister again?” Depending on spiritual beliefs, parents might respond with something like:
It is important to make sure children know that their brother or sister will always be a part of the family and will not be forgotten. Children might want to hear specific stories or memories. Sharing about dinners, holidays, birthdays, or favorite activities can reassure siblings that they will still be connected to their brother or sister.
Encourage children to share their ideas about things the family can do at special times to remember their sibling. You could say something like:
Grieving children often ask, “What are we going to do?” It can be helpful to admit that it is difficult to go on. Reassure children that the family will be together. You can support one another by saying: “It is hard to imagine not being all together. We will find ways to remember your sister and include her in our family. She will always be your sister.”
When parents express feelings, it can help children understand that they are not alone and that their feelings are normal. It is important to allow children to express their raw emotions.
You may want to let your children know that you share the same feelings and that it is normal. Possible ways of discussing this include:
Sometimes, parents do not know what to say. It is OK for parents to delay answering a question until they feel better prepared. The most important thing is to let children know that it is OK to ask questions.
If children know that parents are also wrestling with answers, then they can be more honest about their own struggles. A simple response might be, “That is a tough question. I have been thinking about it, too.”
One way to support grieving children is to do something with them to honor and remember their brother or sister. Children might have ideas about what they would like to do. These ideas can be a source of great comfort.
These are some project ideas to help children grieve and remember:
Reviewed: September 2023