Helping Children Cope With Death

Death is a natural part of life, but it can be hard for parents to help their children grieve when they may be in mourning, too. A loving parent's support can help children grieve when someone close to them dies, and it may even help parents confront their own feelings of sadness. Including children in rituals like a funeral can provide an opportunity for parents to share their spiritual and religious beliefs. Until about age 6, children are unable to understand death's finality.

Between ages 6 and 10 they begin to understand its permanence. Children of all ages, though, can grieve and feel sadness. Parents should invite grieving children to attend the funeral of their loved one, but it shouldn't be forced. Visiting the cemetery at a later date or saying a special prayer for the deceased are other ways a child can say good-bye.

It's important to speak honestly with children about death. Parents can offer simple facts about what happened. They can explain that death is normal and final and acknowledge that it's hard to lose someone you love. They also should spend time with the children and be available to listen to them.Children often experience many emotions when grieving. Here are some examples:

  • They may deny that their loved one has died and behave as though he or she is still present. Parents can tell them they understand the wish to bring back their loved one. 
  • Some children blame themselves when there is a death. Parents should tell them it is not their fault.
  • Children may express anger through shouting or aggressive behavior. Parents can talk to their children about how they feel and acknowledge their grief. It may help kids to hear that their parents are sad, too. Parents can let them know it's OK to cry and that it may take a while to feel better.

If behavior problems emerge, children should be given constructive ways to work through their feelings, such as playing ball, molding clay or pounding a pillow. They could be encouraged to channel their emotions by drawing pictures and then talking about them. Another constructive way to grieve is to make a scrapbook about the deceased. In it they can describe special memories, draw pictures or include mementos and photographs.

Parents might suggest that children write a letter to their loved one; a written good-bye can help provide closure. Kids need to know they can talk to their parents about how they feel. Nurturing hugs and kisses can reassure them.

Reading storybooks about pets or people dying can help teach kids about death. Even preschoolers can talk about what it means to die. Discussing these issues before a loved one dies will help kids handle death when it does occur. Like anyone, children need time to grieve, but parents should consider seeking professional help from teachers or counselors if it seems necessary.

Accepting death is no easy matter, but once children work through their feelings, they'll be able to cope with their loss and find comfort from others. UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh offers Positive Parenting classes and other parenting workshops.

Current Classes

Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC offers Positive Parenting classes and other parenting workshops. For more information, call the Community Education Department at 412-692-7105. 

Current classes are listed on this Web site.