Ask Dr. Gramma Karen
How Adults Can Help Children
Cope with Death and Grief *
From When Someone Very Special
Dies, Children Can Learn to Cope with Grief,
by Marge Heegaard, MA, ATR, LICSW, copyright © 1992.
*Grateful acknowledgment to Marge Heegaard for permission to use this previously printed material.
It is often helpful for adults to seek additional support and education to understand their own grief process and model a healthy reaction to loss by expressing their feelings and receiving support. Children will generally learn their response to loss from adults in the family.
Children may feel frightened and insecure because they sense the grief and stress of others, and feel powerless to help. They will need additional love, support, and structure in their daily routine.
When someone dies, children often worry about themselves and others dying. They need to know who would take care of them in the unlikely death of both parents.
They need an adequate explanation of the cause of death, using correct terms like die and dead. Vague terms and trying to shield them from the truth merely adds confusion. Avoid terms that associate going away, sleep, or sickness with death. Listen carefully to a child’s response.
Children have magical thinking and may believe that their behavior or thoughts can cause or reverse death.
Do not exclude children when family or friends come to comfort grieving adults. Avoidance or silence teaches children that death is a taboo subject. Children need to learn how to cope with loss, not be protected from grief.
Help children learn to recognize, name, accept, and express feelings to avoid developing unhealthy defenses to cope with difficult emotions. Make physical and creative activities available for energy outlets.
A child may try to protect grieving adults and try to assume the caretaker role, but children need to grow up normally without being burdened with adult responsibilities.
Help children learn to cope with other losses. The death of a pet is a very significant loss for a child. The patterns for coping with loss and grief begin in early childhood and often continue through adulthood.
Share personal religious beliefs carefully. Children may fear or resent a God that takes to heaven someone they love and need.
A child’s grief may not be recognized because children express feelings of grief more in behavior than in words. Feelings of abandonment, helplessness, despair, anxiety, apathy, anger, guilt, and fear are common and often acted out aggressively because children may be unable to express feelings verbally.
Books by Marge Eaton Heegaard
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Books by Marge Eaton Heegaard, in Spanish
Note: All Marge Heegaard’s books are listed on Amazon.com.