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GriefWorks

When a Death Occurs in the Life of a Child
By Vicki Straughan, LMSW. Director, GriefWorks

Telling the child about the death:

If you are a staff member at a school:

  1. Always tell news of this sort in person. To deliver this news over an intercom is inappropriate.
  2. Be sure a child who has received bad news is companioned until a parent or loved one gets there to be with him/her.
  3. Be honest about what has happened. “Susie has died.” “Brent’s mother has died.” Use language that leaves no need for interpretation, rather than using euphemisms. Say the words dead, dying, death, died, instead of “passed away,” “we lost him,” etc. Children need the clarity.
  4. Put out a public notice in the form of a letter to parents informing them of what has occurred with suggestions for how to talk to their children about what has happened. (I have sample letters available.)
  5. Allow the child/children to talk about what has occurred, remember the person who has died if they knew them, and/or ask questions. “I don’t know” is an appropriate answer to children’s questions. Be prepared for younger children to ask questions, such as, “When will Susie come back to school?” since younger children do not understand the permanence of death.

If you are a parent or loved one who must tell a child the news of someone’s death:

  1. Tell the child in terms that he or she can understand that the person has died using age appropriate language. “Susie was very sick, and her body couldn’t go on working, so she died.” “Your mom was in a car accident, and her body was so hurt that her heart stopped working, and she died.” “Your dad’s heart became very sick suddenly, and he died.”
  2. Allow the child to ask any question and/or express any feeling. If a child says, “I HATE that doctor for letting mommy die!” an appropriate response is, “I wish mommy hadn’t died, too.” This is not an appropriate time to correct the child about saying hate. If a child says, “When will mommy come back?” say, “Mommy can’t come back since she died. Died means her spirit has gone to heaven to be with God” (or an explanation that is appropriate in your value system). Allowing a child to express feelings will keep communication open. Correcting the child or shaming them for expressing a feeling will shut them down and prevent further discussion about the death.

Include children in funeral/memorial rituals:

  1. Participation in ritual is helpful to a child. Allow children to participate in funeral/memorial rituals to the degree they have the ability. Allow even young children to attend a funeral/memorial. Prepare them in advance for what the service will be like:
    1. There will be lots of people who knew Grandpa there and some will be crying because they are sad that Grandpa has died.
    2. Someone will speak about Grandpa, and what is said may make you sad, which is okay, and it is okay to cry.
    3. There will be a box called a casket at the front, and it has Grandpa’s body in it. His body no longer has Grandpa’s spirit in it, so we will bury his body at the cemetery, but his spirit lives on in our memory, is in heaven, etc..
    4. There will be a picture of Grandpa at the front of the room to remind us how much we loved him. We are going to put some of his favorite things on the table with his picture. Can you think of something you would like to see on the table with his picture that reminds you of Grandpa?
  2. Allow older children to help plan the service and participate if they choose.
  3. If a friend or family member expresses an opinion of how children should be treated during this time, and it is contrary to your opinion, simply state that you have considered what is in the best interest of the child and ask the friend or family member please not to second guess your decision to include the child in the rituals. Children like to be included and are hurt when they excluded from the goodbye rituals. Participation in ritual allows the child to grieve with other members of the family.
  4. Even if a child plays during a viewing or the funeral, do not assume the child is not absorbing what is going on around him or is not grieving. Children grieve through play because they lack the language to express their feelings verbally.
  5. Following a funeral/memorial include children in visits to the cemetery. Older children may choose not to go a second time, but they should be given an opportunity to go if they choose.

Receiving ongoing support:

Society limits grieving time to three working days it seems. Grief lasts much longer. Just ask anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one. Ongoing support can be found in grief support groups for adults if the grieving person is an adult. Children can find grief support through programs such as:

GriefWorks, Dallas, Dallas, Texas

Journey of Hope, Plano, Collin, Texas

The Warm Place, Ft. Worth, Tarrant, Texas

Two to three months following the death is an appropriate time to seek ongoing support for children. Participation in a program too early may result in a family’s inability to bear their own pain, and hearing the stories of other grieving families may further burden a family. Two to three months gives a family time to begin healing with the natural help of shock and numbness. Also, many family members and friends are present immediately after the death, then loved ones return to their own routines. Children benefit from all the resources available to them when they are grieving the loss of someone they loved. In addition, adult family members need support in order to heal their own grief and may not have the ability to be as present for a child as they would like because of their own grief. Having ongoing support gives a family opportunity to have help as they journey through grief.

Grieving people will not endure seemingly unbearable pain indefinitely. They will return to the business of living and find good in life again in time. Ongoing support helps them on their journey and also helps them see down the road to a time of healing and hope.

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