Frequently Asked Questions from Parents/Caregivers Raising Bereaved Children

With the right kind of support, children are fully capable of successfully navigating the challenges of bereavement and growing into healthy adults. As a matter of fact, research has found that healthy children are the product of a positive relationship with their parent or caregiver, especially where there is care and warmth, modeling of healthy coping behaviors, honest and open communication, and clearly established expectations for behavior in the home.

A variety of reactions from your child is to be expected, including sadness, anger, even laughter and joy. The most important thing to remember is that you are one of the most valuable resources your child has in their life, and you have a great opportunity to help them grow even in the midst of their (and your) grief.

Telling a child that their father or mother, sister or brother has died ranks among the most difficult tasks a parent will encounter. There is no “one size fits all” in terms of what to say, but there are a few general principles that may help. The explanation you offer your children will vary depending on the circumstances of the family member’s death; was there an acute or long-term illness, or did the death occur suddenly and without warning?

In either case, it is important to talk to your children as soon as possible after the death. Start simply and honestly, and preferably in person, by saying something like, “I have some sad news to share with you. Today your Dad was in a car accident. The ambulance took him to the hospital but he was hurt too badly and he died.” First and foremost, be honest and avoid any temptation to alter the truth. If there are questions you can’t answer, say, “I don’t know, but I can try to find out.”

You may want to wait and see what questions your children have before giving more information than they can handle at one time. It’s also helpful to reassure them that, “this is hard, but we will get through it together.”

Contributed by: Staff at the Dougy Center

When talking with your child, it is important to take into consideration your child’s age. Younger children often process information in bite size pieces. Older children and teens often have complex questions and might want a lot of information.

When deciding how much to tell your child, follow their lead based on the questions that you’re being asked. Answering children’s questions honestly is important. So is explaining suicide in terms that they can understand. For example, “Your mom died of suicide.” Suicide means that a person caused their own death. As a parent, you might be hesitant to say these words, but children often overhear the word suicide and might be confused by what it means.

By having this open conversation, you are allowing your child the opportunity to ask questions and have concerns addressed. Children will often ask “why.” It is okay to say, “I don’t know” if you don’t know why.

If you have been struggling with how to have these conversations, or have not been fully honest up to this point, try not to be too hard on yourself. After all, you are also grappling with your own grief and sorrow. Going forward, the key is to create an environment where difficult, yet necessary conversations can take place.

Contributed by: Pamela Gabbay, M.A., FT

As in most “grief talks” or “how do I break bad news” questions, timing is everything. In the case of a loss due to homicide, this is even more central to supporting your young person and family.

The very nature of a homicide involves urgency and quick responses by support and law enforcement personnel that may involve participating in an open investigation, or an “in the moment” or “on the scene” media presence that the family or child/teen may be involved in before any real talk or support can be given.

Supporters should be alert and very sensitive to whether or not the child/teen was a witness to any events preceding the death, or the actual event itself before attempting to talk with the child/teen. This awareness can help you garner responses and resources for addressing possible trauma or other related issues present.

Support offered should factor in any need a child or teen may have about what they have seen or heard about their person on TV or other social media.

Information shared should seek to clarify and to answer questions about what has happened in an age-appropriate and truthful manner.

Again, an awareness of the immediate impact of the homicide on the child’s/teen’s daily functioning can be more helpful than thinking that questions or support involve a need to know “what happened”.

By addressing these needs first in our support efforts we may experience a natural and healing unfolding of what else needs to happen to provide support for the family/young person.

Contributed by: Alesia Alexander Layne, MSW, LCSW, CT, Project KARMA

While it is natural to want to “protect” children from the painful reality of death, end-of-life rituals are vital to a child’s understanding of death and a key component of grief and mourning. Funerals are communal events, which we have been performing since the beginning of time, across continents and cultures. Allowing children the option to attend and participate in these significant end-of-life rituals is important.

Start by telling them what it will look like. Walk them through what they will see, who might come, what people might say, and how people might feel. Children are wonderfully inquisitive and they will be curious at the funeral.

Answer questions honestly and confess when you don’t know the answer. Many parents find it helpful to have a point person during the funeral. Identify someone you and your child trust to be available if your child wants to take a break or stop participating in the ritual.

So, give kids the facts they need, normalize the experience, and let them know their choices. If they decide they do not want to participate that’s okay, too. Just be sure they are making the decision with unbiased facts.

Contributed by: Joseph Primo, MDiv, Chief Executive Officer, Good Grief

Your child will grieve in his or her own unique way. How they grieve will depend on many different factors including their age, their stage of cognitive development; cultural influences; their relationship with the deceased and most importantly, how you are grieving.

Young children up to age 6 are subject to the kind of illogical or magical thinking typical of that developmental stage. They are also egocentric and may think that somehow they caused the death of their loved one. In addition, young children don’t understand that death is irreversible and may be waiting for their loved one to return. Young children need reassurance, comfort and patience on your part as you respond to their questions.

School-Aged children understand that death is permanent but still struggle to make sense of what happened. Respond to their questions in truthful, direct language and know that they are old enough to hear the answer if they’ve asked the question. Children of this age may lack the ability to verbalize their feelings and may behave in ways that cause additional problems. Children may have trouble tolerating strong emotions that are triggered by reminders of the deceased and will need to learn ways to cope with those feelings and thoughts. Parents and caregivers can provide reassurance and bereavement support programs can provide opportunities for children to connect with others who are also coping with a death in the family.

Adolescents are also egocentric and struggle with guilt and regret when a loved one dies. They may attempt to cope with their grief in ways that can be impulsive or even unhealthy. In addition to keeping the lines of communication open with their teens, parents and caregivers can promote supportive relationships. Participation in grief support programs with similarly bereaved teens is also beneficial. Families can encourage teens to continue to pursue the goals they’d had before the death, including leaving home for college or work after high school graduation.

Contributed by: Lauren Schneider, LCSW, Clinical Director of Child and Adolescent Programs, OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center

Going back to school after a death in the family can be an emotional experience for children, as well as parents and caregivers. Although there isn’t a “right” time to go back to school, it is important to promote a return to routine activities and structure.

Caregivers should consider the child’s level of comfort in being separated from supportive adults, and may want to have children attend half days or come to school for lunch breaks to help ease the transition.

It is important to let school personnel know about the death and share what has been helpful to the child.

The impact of a family death on a child’s academic functioning can be unpredictable. Grief reactions can intensify at any time—including during a math test. In some situations, grief can influence a child’s ability to make decisions, and impair memory and concentration, resulting in a decline in school performance. There can also be symptoms similar to ADHD, including disorganization, distractibility, hyperactivity and impulsivity.

Grieving students are likely to benefit from additional social, emotional and learning supports. Parents and caregivers may want to request that school personnel consider making additional accommodations for their children, such as opportunities for breaks or time with a counselor during the day, reduced workload or assignment extensions, assistance with organization and time management, or tutoring when needed. Families can advocate for their children by sharing the resources they have found helpful with school personnel.

Contributed by: Staff at Judi’s House and JAG Institute for Grieving Children and Families

There are many common challenges kids who are grieving express having at school. Many children might be nervous to return to school because they are worried that others might ask them about their person’s death.

Some report being distracted and even frustrated because they cannot concentrate on their work. Other children have reported that they are worried they might have a grief trigger and get upset or cry in front of their friends. Some children have also reported being bullied, or picked on by other children; and some simply share that people say things that they intend to be helpful or comforting, but that are actually hurtful.

Even with all of these potential challenges, though, school remains a safe, structured environment for children and can be helpful as they adapt to life without their person who died. It is helpful to be with friends, get out of the house, and take part in coordinated, fun activities.

Although returning to school can be challenging, parents/caregivers can be encouraging, schedule time to “check-in” about how school is going, and listen when their children need to express their frustrations.

Contributed by: Andy McNiel, M.A.

The experience of grief can be difficult for any child to comprehend and sharing their feelings can be a challenge. After a death, children are often left feeling frightened, angry, sad or confused. They may lack the ability to express themselves, or reach out for help, in a clear or mature way.

Often when a child misbehaves they are trying to communicate a need for help, or a strong feeling, and just lack the vocabulary and skills needed. Adults may see negative or “acting out” behavior as intentional, but sometimes it is just a reflection of the child’s limitations and desire for support.

While no loss experience should excuse antisocial or dangerous behavior, we must not miss the messages in our child’s actions.

Set clear limits for the negative behavior and focus on safety being absolute, while also offering healthier ways for the child to express himself or herself.

Be confident, but not overly critical, when commenting on misbehavior.

When a child doesn’t want to “talk,” parents and caregivers can still model healthy self-expression by sharing their own feelings.

When we help children find better ways to share their feelings and needs, negative behaviors are less likely to occur.

Contributed by: Peter Willig, LMFT, FT

After the death of a loved one, parents and caregivers are often concerned about their children’s ability to cope. Although the field of childhood grief is still learning about how children function after a death, current research indicates that bereaved youth usually go on to lead healthy and productive lives.

It is also natural to see changes in children’s behaviors after a death, including signs of sadness, anger, and fear.

That being said, it is helpful to be aware of signs that can tell us when a child may be in need of more formalized, professional support. Some behaviors that might indicate the need for further support include:

(1) inability to keep up with daily tasks, such as regularly attending school, completing homework, personal hygiene;
(2) significant, ongoing signs of extreme sadness, sobbing, or social withdrawal;
(3) risky, harmful behaviors (drug use, reckless driving, stealing);
(4) inability to acknowledge the death, or appearing numb or totally disconnected from the reality of the death; or
(5) persistent fantasies about ending his/her life in order to be reunited with the deceased person in an afterlife.

It is also important for parents and caregivers to trust their instincts about whether their child is struggling excessively to cope in the aftermath of a death. After all, parents are often the true “experts” when it comes to observing uncharacteristic behavioral changes in their own child.

Contributed by: Julie Kaplow, Ph.D., Director, Trauma and Grief Center for Youth, Texas Children’s Hospital

Grieving is a natural human experience and serves a crucial purpose in our lives after we lose someone important to us. While the parent-child relationship and open communication are the most important tools to ensure healthy adjustment after a family death, many parents have concerns about their children or feel the need for more support for their children or themselves.

Fortunately, there are resources for children and families that can promote a child’s health after loss. Many communities have support programs for individuals who are grieving. Professionals and trained volunteers provide activities and opportunities for children to be with peers who are also coping with a death.

Many programs also provide parent education or group sessions that offer information, support and suggestions for parenting their bereaved children.

There are also child and family mental health centers based in health care facilities or universities where experts provide screening and counseling services for children who may be having a more difficult time after the loss. Families can identify resources by asking trusted health care providers for suggestions in their own communities.

Public libraries not only contain helpful books for children and parents but may also have listings of regional resources.

The National Alliance for Grieving Children is the most comprehensive source for information and services focusing on childhood bereavement. The NAGC website and its Childhood Bereavement Awareness Initiative website contain many resources for families including a listing of grief programs and centers across the United States.

Parents and children face new and unfamiliar challenges as they grieve a death in the family; it is a time to gather as many resources as possible.

Contributed by: Donna A. Gaffney, DNSc, PMHCNS-BC, FAAN