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Father in denim shirt comforting his young daughter, who is sad

How You Can Support a Child After Parent Suicide

By Children, Grief/Loss, Loss from Suicide

Losing a loved one to suicide is devastating at any age, but it has a deep, formative impact on children. Johns Hopkins Children’s Center has done extensive research and found that children who are under the age of 18 when their parent dies by suicide are three times more likely to complete suicide themselves. That’s why it is so deeply important to provide support, encouragement, and care to these children. With that in mind, we’ll discuss 10 ways you can support a child as they process a parent’s suicide.

Note: This is a sensitive, complex topic, and will be a long-term undertaking for adult caregivers. We recommend that you also speak with a child grief counselor or specialist to get the most well-rounded information possible as you seek to help the child in your life.

Young boy sitting by himself, looking out a window with a stuffed animal beside him

Understanding the Work of Grief

First, let’s first talk about the “work of grief.” What does this mean? Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, a nationally respected author and grief counselor, says that we all have six needs when we mourn. Six needs that will help us do the work of grief and move toward healing and reconciliation. (Click here to read Dr. Wolfelt’s full article on the six needs.)

They are:

  1. Acknowledging the reality of the death
  2. Embracing the pain of the loss
  3. Remembering the person who has died
  4. Developing a new self-identity
  5. Searching for meaning
  6. Receiving ongoing support from others

As you help a child process their suicide grief, keep these needs in mind. The child will work through each need during the grief journey. It will likely take many years, and there won’t be any particular order. Instead, focus on being there for them – a steady source of love and support.

Now that you have an understanding of the work of grief, let’s look at 10 tips for supporting a child after a parent completes suicide.

10 Tips for Supporting a Child After a Parent’s Suicide

Blonde mother kneeling in front of young son, talking softly to him

1. Be Open and Honest

It’s instinctive to want to protect children from the harsh things of life, but by doing so, we don’t teach them how to overcome those hard things. So, even though it may seem kinder to gloss over or barely discuss a parent’s suicide death, resist the urge. Also, don’t wait to tell them. The last thing they need is to hear about a parent’s death from a classmate, a teacher, or even on social media.

Children need to be able to trust the adults in their lives to tell the truth. When they ask questions, answer the questions. Be open. Be honest. Yes, be tactful and age-appropriate, but tell them what has happened. Children are resilient, but if you hide the truth, you will only create confusion and anger later on when they find out you weren’t fully honest.

To help you prepare for potential questions your child could ask, click here.

Mother hugging her sad, young daughter close as they grieve

2. Show Your Own Emotions

As adults, we try to keep our emotions in check, but this habit is often harmful. Children learn by example – by watching what you do – so if you stifle your emotions, they will stifle theirs. If you refuse to face your own depth of feeling, they won’t learn how to understand their own feelings.

So, be open with your own emotions. As you open up, your child will learn that it’s normal and okay to be sad, angry, betrayed, or confused after a death. By modeling healthy ways to process grief, you will help the child acknowledge the reality of the death and move forward on a journey toward healing.

Dad talking face to face with his middle-age son, explaining the suicide of a parent

3. Define “Suicide” and Discuss “Sadness vs. Depression”

You’ll use different words depending on the age of the child, but you want your child to have an understanding of suicide that comes from you. Additionally, it’s important to explain the difference between sadness and depression. You certainly don’t want a child to think suicide is the answer when they are feeling sad.

Instead, emphasize that the person was sick – they had a disease – which made them unable to think clearly or make good decisions. Then, discuss healthy ways to cope with sadness and other difficult feelings, so your child understands there are good ways to deal with big emotions.

For detailed tips on how to keep the discussion age-appropriate, click here.

Focus on the hands of two people, a female adult gently holding the hands of a child who needs comfort

4. Leave the Discussion Open

Grief isn’t over in a day. A child dealing with the suicide death of a parent has a long road ahead. They may ask questions every day for weeks, stop for a while, and then bring it up again in a year. As the adult caregiver, always be ready to open the discussion again. The child is only bringing it up because they’ve been thinking about it and want to process something.

Plus, children grieve differently, depending on age and personality. They will ask questions, and then they will go off and play. Or they won’t want to talk at first, but after they’ve had time to think, they will want to discuss it with you. Be open and ready, expecting future questions, so you won’t be caught off guard when the day comes.

Father in denim shirt comforting his young daughter, who is sad

5. Assure Them It’s Not Their Fault

Many adults deal with guilt after a suicide death, so it’s not surprising that children will experience the same thing. However, with children, it’s even more important to assure them it’s not their fault. They are too young to understand the social and psychological factors that contribute to suicide.

Instead of understanding that their parent was dealing with depression, they will instead think, “If only I had picked up my toys,” “been less annoying,” “done what they asked me to do,” then they might still be here. A child may also deal with feelings of rejection, thinking they weren’t important enough to their parent. As sensitively as possible, assure the child it’s not their fault. Remind them that their parent was sick and that sickness has nothing to do with the child.

Father and son sitting on tan couch at home, talking together

6. Get Back to Routine

After the death of a parent, a child’s everyday routine will change, no doubt. But you can create a similar routine that will become familiar and offer security. As they head back to school, make sure to let their teachers and counselors know what has happened, so they can support your child during school hours.

Include encouragement, hugs, and assurance in their daily routine. Your child needs to know that you aren’t going anywhere and will be there for them through the ups and downs.

Mother and son sitting on couch at home, mother hugging son close as he cries and is upset

7. Watch for Signs of Trauma

Some children experience more trauma than others after the suicide death of a parent. As you interact with the child, be on the lookout for certain warning signs:

  • Withdrawal from normal activities
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Avoiding reminders of the person who has died
  • Participating in numbing activities (like too much TV, video games, etc.)
  • Anger or behavioral issues
  • Reduced academic performance

A child may exhibit some of these at the beginning of the grief journey, but if they don’t go away or they get worse, reach out to a professional for assistance.

Mother and young son at the graveside, participating in a remembrance activity and healing action

8. Participate in Healing Actions and Remembrance Activities

Regardless of the person’s manner of death, the work of grief requires that we take time to remember and reflect. This may mean:

  • Creating a scrapbook or memory box
  • Drawing pictures
  • Preparing a favorite meal
  • Watching a favorite movie or going to a beloved place
  • Attending a remembrance service at the holidays

In addition to remembrance activities, a funeral service provides an opportunity for your child to say goodbye and express their grief. While funerals can feel uncomfortable, children learn valuable life lessons from them. In the end, the funeral plays a large role in the grief journey. Those who take time to honor a loved one’s memory can more easily move forward after a loss.

Of course, you should discuss the funeral with your child and see if they’d like to contribute. Some children will want to participate, and others won’t. That’s okay – let them make the decision.

Young girl having fun blowing on a dandelion

9. Create a Sense of Wonder

While you can’t ignore the difficulties in life, you don’t have focus your family dynamic on them either. Nurture a sense of wonder, joy, hope, and creativity in your child. Discuss why life is beautiful and what good things are to come. Show them how to work through the big emotions.

As you pour into your child’s life, they will see the good and the bad, the ups and the downs, and realize that it’s normal for these things to occur. This type of worldview will help them face the challenges ahead with resilience and fortitude, making them strong, capable, and emotionally healthy adults.

Mother and daughter sitting on a couch as they talk with a therapist

10. Seek Professional Help, When Needed

Caring for a child after parent suicide is not easy. If the child in your life is experiencing significant challenges, seek out professional help. A grief counselor or mental health therapist can work directly with your child and give you customized tips to help them through this season of deep grief.

For a child to become a healthy adult, it’s important to address any lingering effects of the death. Only then will the child be able to move forward with confidence and free of self-blame or feelings of rejection.

On the journey ahead, some days will be especially hard. But you’re not alone. Rely on your close family and friends to help you. Reach out to the professionals when it’s beyond your own capabilities. With support, encouragement, and time, your child can do the work of grief and move forward to a bright and healthy future.

Additional Resources

Children, Teens, and Suicide Loss (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention)
Talking to Children About a Suicide (Mental Health Commission of Canada)

Father holding daughter's hand as they walk outside

10 Ways to Emotionally Support a Dying Child (and Their Family)

By Children, Grief/Loss, Hospice

A child you care about is dying. You want to offer your love and care, but you’re not sure how to go about it. Whether you are a parent, friend, or caregiver, may this guide help you turn your care and concern into action.

When a Child is Dying

In our hearts, we all believe that children aren’t supposed to die. As much as we wish otherwise, the sad truth is that children do die. Confronting this difficult reality is the first step you can take toward helping a dying child. It’s going to take time, so for now, try to accept the reality of the child’s medical condition, if only with your head. You will later come to accept it with your heart.

Little boy in bed checking his teddy bear's heartbeat with a stethoscope

As you navigate through a heartbreaking situation, may these 10 insights serve as a guide to loving a child (and their family) through one of life’s most difficult times…the loss of a child.

1. Don’t Underestimate the Child’s Capacity to Understand

Children have the capacity to understand more than we give them credit for. Like adults, they deserve our respect and compassion—and our honesty. Sometimes adults, in an effort to protect themselves, assume that children are incapable of understanding or should be protected from the truth. These adults often don’t talk directly to dying children about their prognoses, which can leave the children feeling alone and isolated.

Children can cope with what they know. They can’t cope with what they don’t know. Dying children deserve an atmosphere that creates open, two-way communication. Many terminally ill children will go back and forth between wanting to know details about their illness and not wanting to acknowledge they are even sick. It is critical to follow the child’s lead. Always listen first as you participate in open dialogue about any feelings, concerns, or questions they might have. If they ask something and you don’t know the answer, simply say, “I don’t know.”

Child sitting on bed with mother kneeling and talking in a loving way

2. Be Honest with the Child About Their Coming Death

As the child comes to comprehend their illness and its severity, explain to them that they will likely die, making sure to use language they will understand. The conversation may be the hardest thing you have ever done, but honest love is what a dying child needs most.

Depending on their age and developmental maturity, they may not immediately (or ever) fully understand what their illness means. But they will begin to incorporate the notion of death into their remaining life and will have the opportunity to think about it and ask questions. They will also have the privilege of saying goodbye.

Do not try to protect the child by lying about their condition. If a dying child is told they are going to get better but everyone around is acting down and defeated, they will notice. This may make the child feel confused, frustrated, and perhaps angry.

Instead, show your love and respect by being honest and open with them and helping them understand that they are dying.

Father holding daughter's hand as they walk outside

3. Encourage Open Communication, But Do Not Force It

As caring adults, we should encourage honest communication between the child, caregivers, family, and friends. However, we should never force it. Children will naturally “dose” themselves as they encounter the reality of the illness in their life. In other words, they will accept the reality of their circumstances in small doses over time. They aren’t able to take all the information in at once, nor will they want to.

Answer only what the child asks. Don’t overrespond out of your own anxiety. Remember—children will determine with whom they want to share their pain. Often, a child wants to protect their parents or other close adults and will adopt a “chin up” attitude around them. This is a normal response and should be respected.

4. Watch for the Child’s Indirect Communication

Children, particularly seriously ill children, are not always direct about their thoughts and feelings. They may make statements, display behaviors, or ask questions that indirectly suggest their understanding or awareness of the situation. These cues reflect underlying needs and deserve loving responses. Pay special attention to the child’s non-verbal means of trying to communicate any needs or concerns.

Mother kissing son's forehead at sunset

5. Tune In to the Dying Child’s Emotions

Aside from the considerable physical toll terminal illness can take, dying also affects a child’s head, heart, and spirit.

While you shouldn’t guess at or make assumptions about a child’s feelings, do be aware that they may experience a variety of emotions. Fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, and loneliness are just a few of the emotions they may feel—one at a time or simultaneously.

These feelings are a natural response to serious illness. Don’t try to help the child “get over” these feelings; simply enter into their feelings and validate them.

6. Help the Dying Child Live to the Fullest

Terminal illness presents human beings with an exceedingly difficult and contradictory challenge: you are dying, you know you are dying, yet it is your nature to want to live. Dying children often feel this tension, too. If the adults around them have been honest, they understand that they will soon die, but they still want to live and laugh and play as often as they can.

Help the dying child live happily. Do what is in your power to make them comfortable. Create special, memorable moments. Don’t completely abandon your normal routine (this may make the child feel out-of-control and unprotected) but do work to make each remaining day count. Above all, spend time with them. Make sure that the people who mean the most are around as often as possible.

Four children of different ethnic backgrounds smiling while playing outside

Peer relationships are very important to children, and the illness will likely create some social and physical barriers to these friendships. When possible, nurture the child’s friendships when possible. Arrange a special party. Make play dates with one or two best friends. Help two children write letters back and forth when personal contact isn’t possible.

7. Take Advantage of Resources for the Dying

Local hospices are well-staffed and trained to help both a dying child and their family. The hospice’s mission is to help the dying die with comfort, dignity, and love, and to help survivors cope both before and after the death. Other organizations, like the Make-A-Wish Foundation, help dying children find joy in their remaining lives.

8. Support Parents and Other Important Adults in the Child’s Life

A child’s terminal illness naturally impacts everyone who loves the child. Not only should you be supportive of the child, you should also be available to support and nurture other family members and close friends through the grief and stress of the situation. The adult’s response to the illness will influence the child’s response. So, in supporting adults, you are supporting the child.

Perhaps you can be a caring companion to the family and help in practical ways. Offer to provide food for the family, wash clothes, or clean the house. Listen when they need to talk. Sit with the ill child to give parents a break. Offer to babysit the other children in the family. While words may be inadequate, your supportive behavior will be remembered forever.

Holding a friend's hand in a comforting way

9. Don’t Forget Siblings

Don’t forget the impact a dying child’s illness is having on their siblings. Because so much time and attention are focused on the dying child, his brothers and sisters may feel emotionally abandoned. Go out of your way to ensure their needs are also being met.

10. Embrace Your Spirituality

If faith is part of your life, express it in ways that seem appropriate to you. During this difficult time, you may find comfort and hope in reading spiritual texts, attending religious services, or praying. Allow yourself to be around people who understand and support your religious beliefs.

A Final Word

All children, terminally ill or not, have the right to be nurtured, to be children, and to make choices that impact their lives. There is nothing more difficult for families than confronting the death of a child. As caring adults, we have a responsibility to maximize the quality of life for the child, the family, and friends. May these 10 insights help you lovingly care for each person affected by the death of a child.

*Based heavily on a brochure by Dr. Alan Wolfelt called Helping a Child Who is Dying. Dr. Alan Wolfelt is a respected author and educator on the topic of healing in grief. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine. Visit to learn more about helping children in grief. Published with permission.

7 Tips for Teaching Your Child How to Process Grief

By Children, Grief/Loss

From the moment we enter this life, the journey is full of ups and downs. Moments of happiness, excitement, and meaning intermixed with moments of pain, anger, regret, and grief. None of us were born knowing how to deal with the complex emotions we feel; we have to be taught. As children, we needed the adults in our lives to teach us how to respond to the difficult situations that life threw our way, like how to process grief. So, as you face the ups and downs of life, how are you helping your children create healthy grieving habits they can use as they grow up and face all types of loss?

A Parent’s First Impulse

Before we move into a few helpful tips, it’s important to acknowledge that your first impulse as a parent or caregiver may be to protect your child from the pain of loss. While this desire comes from a good place, try not to give into it. Your child doesn’t need you to make the battles of life go away. Instead, they need you to give them the tools to fight the battle for themselves, to process what they feel, to talk it out, to steadily discover the way to healing. In other words, none of us can run away from the tough things in life.

Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a nationally respected grief counselor, author, and educator who has companioned hundreds of families and individuals through the grief journey, puts it this way:

You might fall into the common thinking of our society that denying these feelings will make them go away. You might have the urge to “keep your chin up” and stay busy and wait to “get over” your grief. Yet, ironically, the only way to help these hard feelings pass is to wade in the muck of them. To get in and get dirty. Grief isn’t clean, tidy, or convenient. Yet feeling it and expressing it is the only way to feel whole, once again. Unresolved grief can leave you feeling “stuck” or empty. Your ability to engage in life could be inhibited and you might feel like you’ve shut down.

Instead, choose grief. And as you walk with your grief, actively mourn. By taking action, you will eventually integrate the death of your loved one into your life. In exchange, you will find the hope, courage, and desire to once again live a full and rewarding life.

In short, we must all learn how to deal with grief in healthy ways so that we can live full lives, and your child needs your help learning the skills to emotionally succeed. But how do you get started?

7 Tips for Teaching Your Child How to Process Grief

Much of what children learn, they learn through imitation. Meaning, they learn by seeing and mimicking that behavior. Have you ever had one of those moments when you hear or see your child express one of your own habits? It’s often a wake-up call for parents. They think, “Oh! I didn’t realize he picked up on that.” Just as your kids can pick up your not-so-great habits, they pick up your good habits, too. So, what can you do to help them pick up good grieving habits?

1. Teach them their feelings are normal

First of all, lay the groundwork that their grief emotions are natural, normal, and not to be feared. So many people suppress what they feel and don’t express what’s on the inside in healthy ways. Often, they leave their feelings unaddressed for so long that when they finally do come out, it’s an explosion of negative emotions.

Rather than letting it get to the point of combustion, teach your child healthy ways to express their emotions, especially those associated with loss. Whether it’s sadness, anger, regret, guilt, whatever – help your child understand that what they feel is normal and nothing to be ashamed or afraid of. They just need to find the right way to process and release those emotions.

2. Show them how to express their feelings in a healthy way

When you consider ways to process and release emotions in a healthy manner, it’s important to remember that every person is different. No two grief journeys are the same. What works for you may not work for your child. So, take their personality into account and explore different options until you both find one that fits.

A few ideas to start:

  • Have your child draw a picture depicting what makes them sad and have them explain it to you
  • Ask your child to write down what they feel or a favorite memory
  • Create a memorial item together – a scrapbook, photo book, quilt, a stuffed animal using a loved one’s clothing, etc. Go to Creating Memorial Keepsakes from a Loved One’s Clothing, Creating Memorial Keepsakes from Funeral Flowers, or if you’ve lost a pet, go to 10 Family-Focused Pet Remembrance Ideas for more memorial ideas.
  • Introduce specific arts & crafts that will help them identify the emotions they feel
  • Read aloud age-appropriate books that discuss grief and loss
  • Show children how to practice simple yoga moves or mindful breathing exercises to help them learn how to self-calm
  • If their feelings are more explosive, look for safe physical ways to reduce stress, like running, playing chase, going to a batting cage or a golfing range, kicking a ball, etc.

Be an active participant in these activities with your child and help them learn how to express what they feel rather than pushing it away. With this habit in place, as they grow, they will understand the need to accept what they feel and look for ways to express it.

3. Take time to share stories and memories

An important part of the grief process is remembrance. Most often, this means telling stories, sharing memories, keeping special belongings, looking at photos, or watching videos. You may have noticed that when a person grieves, they share memories and tell favorite stories – maybe even the same ones again and again. This is all part of remembrance and transitioning the relationship from one of physical presence to one of memory. Encourage your child to share their memories and favorite stories. Listen with a compassionate and patient ear when they need you to simply hear what they have to say.

4. Demonstrate how to accept help

This one may be tough for some. You’ve likely had independence and self-reliance ingrained in you since your own childhood. In many ways, it’s great to be self-reliant, but it’s not always what you need. Accepting help from others doesn’t mean you aren’t capable of doing it on your own. It simply means that you understand that things can be easier if you don’t have to do it alone, and there’s nothing wrong with making things easier for yourself and your family.

So, as you face tough situations in life, accept help from those around you. That may mean accepting an offer to watch the kids, mow the lawn, run a few errands, or make a meal. Then, when your friends need help, give back. As you actively give and accept help, your child will notice what you’re doing. Invite them to be a part of it to cultivate the habit of giving and receiving help.

5. Tell them that grief takes time

Grief ebbs and flows, and in some ways, it never fully goes away. No matter how much time passes, some part of you will always miss the person who has died, and that’s natural. But in time, if you do the work of grief and express your pain in healthy ways, you will find a path to move forward.

It will look different from person to person. For some, grief lasts months, while for others, it lasts years. There are many factors at play, including the closeness of the relationship, the circumstances of the death, and the mourner’s personality. When grief and loss come into your family life – whether that’s a person, a pet, a friendship – use that moment to talk to your child and give them realistic expectations of the grief journey.

6. Answer their questions honestly

Have you ever met a kid who didn’t have a few questions? Asking questions comes naturally to them, so don’t be surprised if they have a lot to ask you about death, dying, grief, and more. Some questions you might be able to anticipate, while others may take you by surprise. No matter what, answer their questions honestly and simply.

It almost goes without saying, but don’t blanket over the truth about what happened with “white lies.” Children are naturally trusting, but if they find out later that you lied to them about something very important to them, you could damage their trust in you. In the same way, avoid euphemisms, as they just confuse children about what really happened. Instead, thoughtfully and sensitively answer them. They don’t have to know all of the details. You can decide what’s appropriate for their age and maturity, but always be completely honest. Children are much more resilient and understanding than we give them credit for.

7. Assure them that everything will be all right

Right now, in this moment, things may not be all right, but in time, they will be. Assure your child that the tough moments of today don’t create a dark future for tomorrow. Give them hugs and kisses. Provide the one-on-one time they need to feel secure and loved. Help them find ways to express what they feel.

Take one day at a time, one moment at a time. Life won’t go back to the way it used to be – that’s impossible – but it can still be good. That’s what the grief journey is all about: finding a way to reconcile yourself to the loss you’ve suffered, grieving the person you love, and discovering what life looks like now and how you can find new meaning and purpose.

These tips are intended to be building blocks for the years ahead. Just as it takes time for you to teach your child how to use silverware, interact in social situations, and make smart decisions, it will take time to impart these nuggets of truth about the grief journey. But in the end, your child will learn how to process what they feel in a healthy way and see hope for the future despite today’s difficulties.

5 Tips for Helping Your Child Process the Death of a Pet

By Children, Grief/Loss, Pets

If you’ve ever owned a pet, you understand just how much you can come to love that animal. Whether it’s a dog, cat, guinea pig, ferret, fish, turtle, or rabbit, pets have a way of making their way into our hearts. As an adult, you have experienced loss in your life before, but for children, the first death they may go through is the loss of a pet. So, how can you help your children process their emotions and move toward healing?

Honor your child’s feelings

One of the best things you can do for your child is treat their emotions with respect and validity. Assure them that it’s okay to feel sad, hurt, or angry. It’s normal to feel this way after loss. Stay away from telling a child how they should feel or that they need to “be strong.” This exhortation may be why so many adults have learned to brush away their emotions, to stifle them, but that’s not the way to healing. It’s a form of avoidance, and undealt with emotions can lead to long-term consequences. By letting your child know that their emotions are real and valid, you give them the freedom to feel what they feel and not be afraid of it.

Share what you feel

Your first inclination may be to push aside your own emotions so you can “be strong” for your child. But your child needs to know that you cared about the family pet, too. If you don’t show your own sadness, your child may think that their own sadness is wrong, that they should be more like mommy or daddy, unphased. Now, it’s up to you how much emotion you want to show in front of your child. Don’t scare or frighten your child with your emotions, but do let them know that you’re sad, too.

Be honest

Some children are more inquisitive than others, but no doubt, your child is going to have some questions. Answer as honestly as you can (taking their age and maturity into account). Don’t use euphemisms or half-truths. Instead, sensitively explain what happened and answer their questions. Children can handle the truth (often much better than adults can). According to the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, children between ages 7 to 9 will have the most questions, so be prepared.

A few questions you may hear:

  • Why did [pet name] die?
  • Is it my fault?
  • What happened to [pet name]’s body?
  • Will I see him/her again?
  • Where did he/she go?
  • Will he/she come back?

Give them time and encourage discussion

Grief is an interesting thing. It doesn’t go away in a day, and sometimes, it sticks around for a while. That said, let your child know it’s okay if they need to talk about your pet again. In fact, sharing stories and talking about our grief is both healthy and necessary. While you may have personally moved on, give your child the time and space they need to grieve. And if they need to talk, create the space for it.

Find tangible ways to help them grieve

Children are hands-on learners, which is why touching and play time are important to their early development. Because of the hands-on nature of children, you might consider using activities to help them process the pain they feel.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Draw a picture of your pet
  • Write a story
  • Create a collage of favorite photos and place it in a prominent place
  • Hold a short memorial ceremony where each member of the family has a chance to share
  • Sit down as a family to share favorite pet stories
  • Make a scrapbook or memory book together
  • Buy a stuffed animal to represent the lost pet
  • Choose a memorial marker – a plaque or a stone – and place it in a special place

By helping your child deal with the death of a pet, you are giving them valuable life skills that will aid them as they grow into adulthood. After all, the loss of a pet, while difficult, is not the only hard situation they will face in life. By giving them the building blocks now, you can help them learn how to grieve in a healthy way, no matter what kind of loss they may encounter in the years ahead.

How to Talk to Children About Euthanizing a Pet

By Children, Grief/Loss, Pets

Pets are a lovable, adorable, and often irreplaceable part of our families. Because of our attachment to them, the decision to euthanize a pet is incredibly difficult, especially when you have kids. For many children, the loss of a pet is often the first death they experience. However, you can turn the decision to euthanize into an opportunity to teach your child about healthy grieving. Let’s talk through a few helpful tips for talking to your child about euthanizing a pet.

1. Be open and honest.

Your first instinct may be to sugarcoat the situation or rely on euphemisms. Instead, stick to the truth. Taking your child’s age and maturity level into account, gauge just how much information they need to hear. It’s preferable to use words like “death” and “dying” – it will help your child realize the permanence of your pet’s absence.

A few don’ts:

  • Stay away from euphemisms like your pet went “to sleep” or was “put to sleep.” Children are very literal, and by using these terms, you may inadvertently give your child sleep anxiety because they begin to associate sleep with dying or never coming back.
  • Avoid glossing over the truth with a white lie like “Sunny ran away” or “Fido went on a trip.” These may give your child a sense of hope that the pet will return, which prevents them from grieving and moving on.
  • Stay away from saying that the pet was so special that God wanted him in heaven. This could cause a child to grow angry at God or fear that they themselves might be next.
  • Don’t blame the veterinarian. Instead, consider asking your vet for advice on how to talk about euthanasia with your children. They may even be open to personally talking to your children about why euthanasia may be the best option for your pet.

Ultimately, the best policy is to tell them the truth in simple terms and then be ready to answer questions.

2. Help your child understand why euthanasia is necessary.

Perhaps the biggest challenge will be explaining to your children why euthanasia may be the best option. First, explain why you think euthanasia is necessary. This could be old age, terminal illness, or an accident. A few examples of what you could say:

  • Sunny is sick and the veterinarian has done everything he/she can to help. Sunny is hurting, and this will take away her pain.
  • The doctor has done everything he/she can, but Fido’s not going to get better. By doing this, we can help Fido die peacefully. He won’t hurt or be scared.
  • When an animal gets very old, their body stops working. When that happens, we can help by taking away their pain.

If your children ask what euthanasia is, you could say, “When a pet is really old or hurting, the veterinarian will give them a special shot that stops the heart and takes away the pain.” Maneuver through the questions as best you can, taking your child’s maturity level into account.

3. Discuss what’s happening as a family.

It’s best not to euthanize your pet without talking to your children first. In fact, if it’s possible, include them in the discussion. Talk about how old your pet is and how much pain they feel. Discuss your pet’s health diagnosis and the cost of treatment. Together, as a family unit, make the decision about what’s best. It may be a difficult conversation, but your older children will appreciate being allowed to participate in the decision. Also, it will be a growth opportunity as you model positive decision-making.

4. Give the kids the opportunity to say goodbye.

Once you’ve decided that euthanasia is necessary, give your child an opportunity to say their goodbyes. When we don’t have a chance to say goodbye – whether it’s to a pet or a person – there’s something in us that just doesn’t heal properly. So, rather than taking your pet to the vet while your kids are away, tell them what’s going to happen. Give them the chance to say goodbye and to hug or kiss your pet. They need this moment of closure just as much as you do.

5. Let your child decide if they want to be present for your pet’s euthanasia.

If your child is older (around 6+), let them decide if they want to be present for your pet’s euthanasia. For some children, seeing the peaceful reality is easier to deal with than whatever fantasy they may conjure on their own. If they don’t want to go, that’s fine, too. Just having the option to choose is often enough. If your child does want to attend, let the veterinarian know and do what you can to prepare your child for what they will see.

Children are often more resilient than we give them credit for and allowing them the choice can help create positive coping abilities for the future. Additionally, giving your child a voice in the process makes them feel part of the decision, giving them a semblance of control in what can feel like a helpless and overwhelming situation.

6. Help your children grieve.

Finally, after euthanasia has taken place, help your child through the grieving process. For many children, a pet can almost feel like a sibling – the bond is so close and deep. That’s why it’s important to help them grieve the loss of their dear, furry friend. You might plan a small memorial for your pet and let your child take part. Or, you could put together a scrapbook of photos and memories or create a DVD. You could place a photo of the pet in your child’s room or purchase a stuffed animal that looks similar to your pet to help bring them comfort.

Above all, encourage them to talk about what they’re feeling and look for ways to help them express those emotions. And don’t be shy about sharing your own feelings – they need to see them! What your children learn now will help them process grief as adults. Teach them now how to process grief in a healthy way, and they will carry it into their adulthood and use what they learned to cope with future grief.

10 Story Books on Grief for Children Ages 3-12

By Children, Grief/Loss

There’s no denying that grief is taxing, difficult, and stressful, no matter your age. For children, grief can be particularly confusing because they haven’t emotionally and cognitively developed enough yet to examine and name their feelings. When they feel an emotion, it comes out in their facial expressions, their play, or their behavior (crying, acting out, etc.) because they don’t yet know how to identify and deal with their emotions in a healthy way. That’s where you – the parent or caregiver – come in. You can use books and story to help your child name their emotions and begin to process them.

Through storytelling, we can help our children identify their emotions, see themselves in others, and begin to understand complex situations. On top of that, reading books centered on certain topics – like grief – can open conversations that will allow you to talk to your child and educate them on important life topics.

Below we will review 10 different books for children ages 3-12 that focus on grief, loss, and death. These are certainly not the only books available, but they will give you a place to start. Let’s begin!

The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr (Ages 3-6)

Told from the point of view of a fish who has lost his companion, the book weaves a touching story of how to say goodbye. Touching on a wide range of emotions and responses to loss, Todd Parr gently reminds readers that it’s okay to not have all the answers and that you can rely on others to support you when you’re sad.

Click here to view the book.

“There are many little ways to enlarge your world. Love of books is the best of all.” – Jacqueline Kennedy

I Miss You: A First Look at Death by Pat Thomas (Ages 4-7)

If you are looking for a more straightforward approach, Pat Thomas discusses grief and death in a simple, factual manner. Practical at its heart, the book shares reasons why people die, introduces the concept of a funeral, explores how to say goodbye, and assures children that it’s normal to feel sad after a loss. I Miss You will open opportunities for discussion with your child so you can help them understand the difficult topics of death and dying.

Click here to view the book.

The Invisible String by Patrice Karst (Ages 4-8)

With more than half a million copies sold, this picture book has touched the hearts of readers, young and old alike. The Invisible String shares the story of two siblings who discover that there is an invisible string connecting them to their loved ones through life’s hardest situations. The book offers a simple approach to dealing with loneliness, separation, and loss while helping children explore deeper questions, such as how we are connected to each other through love and unbreakable bonds.

Click here to view the book.

Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift.” —Kate DiCamillo

Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaola (Ages 4-8)

In his beloved and signature style, Tomie dePaola tells the story of four-year-old Tommy, his grandmother, and his great-grandmother. Through beautiful illustrations, dePaola explores the concepts of aging, compassion, loss, and taking care of our elderly loved ones. Perfect for children who have lost or are facing the loss of a grandparent, they can follow along with Tommy as he learns how to say goodbye.

Click here to view the book.

Ida, Always by Caron Levis (Ages 4-8)

Inspired by two real-life polar bears, this endearing tale is a moving depiction of loss and friendship. With its focus on long-term illness, the words and pictures blend together beautifully to create an unforgettable exploration of the complicated emotions associated with the death of a loved one. Simple, graceful, and gentle, Ida, Always will help you navigate through your child’s emotions and give them the chance to ask their questions in a healthy way.

Click here to view the book.

There is no substitute for books in the life of a child.” —May Ellen Chase

The Memory Box: A Book About Grief by Joanna Rowland (Ages 4-8)

Sometimes the best way to grieve is to remember. Told from the viewpoint of a young child who is afraid she might forget someone who has recently died, this comforting book shares the power of creating a memory box, filled with mementos and cherished moments, to grieve a loss. Whether the loss of a friend, family member, or pet, this book will help parents and their children discuss the complicated emotions of grief while also giving them a practical activity to help process death and loss.

Click here to view the book.

Dog Heaven and Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant (Ages 4-9)

For many children, the first loss they experience is the loss of pet. In both Dog Heaven and Cat Heaven, author Cynthia Rylant offers comfort and a look into what could be. Each picture book features bright, bold images to show a peaceful and happy heaven where dogs receive delicious biscuits, and cats never lack a soft angel lap for naps. Slightly unconventional in its depictions of God and heaven, the book has brought comfort to many families.

To view Dog Heaven, click here.

To view Cat Heaven, click here.

It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations—something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own.” —Katherine Paterson

Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen (Ages 8+)

Filled with wisdom, comfort, and practical tips, Tear Soup focuses on assuring the reader that grief is natural and normal. Its pages address the different emotions a child may feel after loss. Additionally, the book offers a cooking tips section that is full of guidance and solid suggestions for processing grief. With this book, you and your child can navigate the grief journey together, giving you the opportunity to sensitively answer your child’s questions along the way.

Click here to view the book.

A Taste of Blackberries by Doris Buchanan Smith (Ages 8-12)

Children in the 8-12 age range have most likely come into contact with grief in some way. It could be the loss of a friendship, the death of a pet or loved one, or some other life-changing event. At this age, children already have a foundation for loss. Even so, it’s good to bring in story and books to help them ask questions and process emotions.

In A Taste of Blackberries, the author follows the friendship of two young boys when something terrible happens. Honest and open, this book will be a conversation starter with your child. It will give you the opportunity to explore how we move forward in a healthy way after loss.

Click here to view the book.

Reading is important, because if you can read, you can learn anything about everything and everything about anything.” —Tomie dePaola

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (Ages 8-12)

Another opportunity to learn through story, Bridge to Terabithia is a compelling tale of loss, friendship, and coming of age. Written by Newbery Medal-winning author Katherine Paterson, this children’s classic dives into the bonds of friendship and how people change us in positive ways, even if we only know them for a short time. Its encouragement to deal with grief in a healthy way and to rely on loving family for support will help your child learn how to deal with loss and lean on loved ones.

Click here to view the book.

Now that you have a place to get started, consider which books are most appropriate for your child. Read them, talk about them, and teach your child about grief, loss, and how to honor, remember, and celebrate the lives of those we have loved and lost.

How to Talk to Children About the Death of a Pet

By Children, Grief/Loss, Pets

Pets are a lovable, huggable, irreplaceable part of the family. This can be especially true for children, some of whom may not even remember a time when your pet wasn’t part of the family. Because your pet has always been around and has a special place in the family, your children may take its death hard. It may even be their first exposure to grief.

While we often want to shelter our children from the tough things in life, it’s better to help them face it than to prevent them from experiencing it. After all, life is filled with difficult situations our children will have to learn to navigate. That being said, there are helpful ways to talk about the death of a pet. Let’s go over 10 tips for talking with your children about the death of a pet so you can feel prepared to answer their questions and meet their emotional needs.

1. Be honest

Rather than sugarcoating the situation, stick to the truth. Taking your child’s age and maturity level into account, gauge just how much information they need to hear. It’s preferable to use words like “death” and “dying” – it will help the child realize the permanence of the pet’s absence. Also, stay away from saying things like, “Red ran away” or “Clover went on a trip.” These won’t help your child process their sadness and may make them feel abandoned. On top of that, if they find out you glossed over the truth, they may become angry at you for not telling them the truth.

If you must euthanize your pet, talk to your child about why it’s necessary, especially if they are older. If the death is more sudden, calmly explain what happened and answer their questions.

2. Keep it simple

Keep the information as simple as possible. Small children aren’t going to ask too many questions, but if they do, calmly answer them in simple terms. They need to know that the pet isn’t coming back, but you can share that information in a gentle way. For example, “Clover was in an accident today, sweetheart. She was hurt very badly, and she died. That means she won’t be coming back to us. Are you okay? Do you have any questions?”

If your child is older, take time to address their concerns. They will be more vocal with their questions. If you are considering euthanizing your pet for health or quality-of-life reasons, discuss the decision with your children and come to a decision together.

3. Break the news in a familiar place

When you break the news, make sure your child is in a safe and comfortable place. They are about to hear news that may deeply upset their world, so it’s best to make sure they are in a place they consider safe. Use a soothing voice, hold their hand, and minimize the distractions.

If you have multiple children, consider breaking the news to them individually. Each child will respond differently to the news of the pet’s death, and you will want to be able to respond to their separate needs.

4. Tell them it’s okay to be sad

Every child will respond differently when confronted with loss. Some are more likely to cry while others may seem unfazed. No matter your child’s reaction, it’s important that they know that whatever they feel is normal. If they need to cry, tell them that’s okay, and it’s good for them to cry if they feel sad. Don’t try to prevent them from expressing their grief. Instead, allow them to feel what they feel. In the long run, it’s better to allow a grieving child time and space to grieve than to make them think their feelings aren’t acceptable or normal.

5. Share your own feelings

As parents, the tendency may be to play down your own emotions so that you can “be strong” for your children. While it may feel counterintuitive, don’t try to hide your emotions from your child. Your openness and vulnerability will help your child understand that it’s okay to express their own emotions. When you model healthy grief, it helps your child learn how to process grief and understand that it’s normal to feel sad when a death occurs. Of course, make sure not to frighten your child with your own emotions. Crying is fine, but for expressive forms of grief, find a time to be alone or with an adult you trust. You want to share in your child’s sadness – not overwhelm them with your own.

6. Avoid euphemisms

Children are very literal, so you have to be careful how you explain the death of a pet. If you euthanize your pet, don’t use the terms “to sleep” or “got put to sleep.” These terms may make your child afraid to go to sleep because they fear they won’t wake up. Or, they may develop possible fears about surgery or anesthesia because we use similar terms.

Also, don’t say that “God has taken” the dog or that it “went away.” In the first case, the child may begin to resent God for taking their pet away and wonder who God might take next. In the second case, a child may wait and wait and wait for the pet to return from wherever they “went away” to. It’s best to be completely truthful and tell your child that their pet has died, and that you are there to comfort them.

7. Reassure them

For some children, loss can trigger fear. They may fear that another pet will die or that people they love will die. In particular, they may fear that something will happen to you – their parent. Calmly and patiently calm their fears. Hold them close to you. Let them cry. Reassure them with words like, “I love you. I don’t plan to leave for a very long time.” Over the coming days, weeks, and months, they may suddenly fear that you will go away. Each time the fear crops up, reassure them of your love and that you plan to stay with them until you are very old.

8. Give them a chance to say goodbye

Just like adults, children need an opportunity to say goodbye to the family pet. For younger children, this may be as simple as placing a kiss on the pet’s head or attending a small family ceremony to bury the pet. Older children may want to be present if the pet is euthanized, but that decision should be left entirely up to them. No matter the age of your child, make a point of saying goodbye to your beloved family pet so that everyone feels a sense of closure and completion. This doesn’t mean that the grief is done, just that you have had a chance to say goodbye.

9. Answer their questions

Children are inquisitive by nature. According to the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, children between the ages of 7 and 9 will have the most questions about death. If your child does start asking questions, don’t panic. Continue to give simple yet truthful answers. There’s no need to go into great detail. Answer their specific question. And if you don’t know the answer, it’s okay to admit that you aren’t sure. Some things about death are still a mystery.

A few questions you may hear:

  • Why did my pet die?
  • Is it my fault?
  • Where does my pet’s body go?
  • Will I ever see my pet again?
  • Is my pet in heaven?
  • Can I make my pet come back?

10. Help them grieve

The final step is to help them through the grieving process. For many children, a pet can almost feel like a sibling – the bond is so close and deep. That’s why it’s important to help them grieve the loss of their dear, furry friend. You might plan a small memorial for your pet and let your child take part. Or, you could put together a scrapbook of photos and memories or create a DVD. You could place a photo of the pet in your child’s room or purchase a stuffed animal that looks similar to help bring them comfort.

Above all, encourage them to talk about what they’re feeling and look for ways to help them express those emotions. What they learn now – as children – will help them process grief as adults. Teach them now how to process grief in a healthy way, and they will carry it into their adulthood and use what they learned to cope with future grief.

Walking a Child Through a Funeral: 9 Tips for Parents

By Children, Explore Options, Living Well

Most of us dearly love our children and want to protect them from the difficult parts of life. But understanding that a funeral is a rite of passage and an important part of the grieving process is an important lesson to learn. Whether or not your child attends a funeral is entirely up to you. For many children, attending a funeral actually helps them move forward in their own grief process. However, as Dr. Kenneth Doka states, “One of the questions oft asked is whether, or at what age, children should attend funerals. The truth is that I am not the person to ask – ask the child!

It’s important to determine whether your child is ready and to give them a choice. Forcing them to attend is usually not very successful, but you also don’t want to assume they wouldn’t want to go. Just like adults, children need an opportunity to say goodbye, so giving them a choice and preparing them ahead of time are important factors to consider.

The Funeral’s Purpose

Before making a decision, explain what a funeral is to your child. Having never attended one, they won’t know its purpose. Use simple, but truthful, answers. For example, “Remember I told you that Nana died? The funeral is a time for everyone – all of her friends and family – to sit and talk together and to remember her and share stories about her. All of us miss her, and at the funeral, we talk about what we liked about her and what we will miss about her. What do you remember about Nana? What will you miss about her?

Breaking it down helps your child get an idea of what the funeral is so they can make an informed decision about whether to go or not. Don’t go into too much detail – keep it age appropriate and strive to use words that won’t scare them.

9 Tips for Helping Kids Through a Funeral

If your child decides to attend the funeral, it’s important to make sure they have the support they need. Remember, this is a completely new experience for them. Just as you sought to make the first day of school as easy and seamless as possible, do the same for a funeral. Talk through it and help them know what to expect.

Prepare them in advance

Just as adults feel more comfortable and better prepared when they know what to expect with a new experience, children do, too. Go through the process step by step. Discuss what your child will see (pews, religious symbols, flowers, casket, urn, the body of the deceased, black clothing, etc.). You don’t have to talk about everything at once – do it in small doses. The point is to put any anxiety to rest and prepare your child for a new experience. For more help with discussion topics, click here.

Explain what death is

Our natural desire is to protect our children from what we think could be harmful. Death is something each of us must come to understand, and it’s best for your child that the information come from you, their parent. Take your child’s age and maturity into account before having the discussion. Young children (under age 7) will understand basic concepts while an older child is able to understand more complexities. But in general, help them understand the physical aspect of death – the person’s body doesn’t work anymore, and they no longer need it. Depending on your spiritual beliefs, you can talk about what happens to the person’s soul after death. Be clear and simple, using the words dead and died. It’s better not to use euphemisms – your child needs to understand the reality. They will learn societal nuances later.

Let them know that their feelings are okay

Explain to your child that they will see a wide variety of emotions at the funeral. Many people will be sad, and that’s okay. It’s natural to be sad after someone dies. People may be quiet at the funeral service but laugh and tell stories at the reception or gathering. Make it clear to your child that their feelings are okay. If they want to cry, that’s fine. If they don’t, that’s fine, too.

Be attentive to their needs

Pay attention to their reactions and ask how they are feeling. While it’s important to let children learn how to process difficult events, it’s also good to give them the ability to escape. You (or a designated friend or relative) can take them outside or into the hallway for a quick break if the funeral or memorial service becomes overwhelming for them. Be attentive but let them go at their own pace. They may surprise you with how well they handle everything.

Ask if they want to remember the person in a special way

Depending on the relationship and your child’s temperament, it may be appropriate to ask if there’s a special way they want to honor the one who has died. Perhaps they might wear a certain color (the loved one’s favorite), tell a story, draw a picture to share or bury with the person, or bring an item that the loved one gave to them (like a toy, blanket, or article of clothing). Just as it’s important for us as adults to find special ways to honor the lives of those we love, it’s important for children.

Answer their questions

Answer their questions as best you can, honestly and without shaming them. By asking questions, they are processing the death and what it means. The questions will range from simple to more complex. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know” or “Let’s find out.” This helps them know that you also don’t know all the answers, and you can learn and process together.

Don’t force anything on them

While we all strive to teach our children obedience and how to follow our household rules, it’s best not to force things on a child at a funeral. This applies to many things. Don’t force them to go up to the casket to view the body or to touch the body. Don’t make them feel that they must share stories at the gathering or reception. Instead, ask them. Give them the opportunity to participate and the grace to stand back and observe.

Discuss your own feelings

Funerals bring out a wide variety of feelings: sadness, anger, relief, shock. Even for adults, emotions are difficult, so as children identify them and learn about them, it’s important that they have a role model: you. Tell them how you feel about the person who has died. Assure them that your and their feelings are normal and natural. By watching you in your grief, they learn how to handle their own.

Debrief with them

After the funeral, over the next days and weeks, ask your child questions about their experience. Check in to see how they are feeling and if they need to talk through anything they witnessed or didn’t understand. Encourage them to share how they are feeling. Let them know that you care about them and their feelings and are there for them, no matter what.

Ultimately, it’s about preparing them and guiding them through the hard things in life, so they can deal with them on their own in a healthy way.

For more in-depth information on topics to discuss with your children before the funeral, make sure to read 7 Key Topics to Discuss with Children Before a Funeral.

7 Key Topics to Discuss with Children Before a Funeral

By Children, Grief/Loss, Living Well

The funeral, a ritual that has been with us since the beginning of time, is here to help us embrace the life that was lived and support each other as we go forward.  As caring adults, we will serve our children well to introduce them to the value of coming together when someone we love dies.” – Dr. Alan Wolfelt

If your child is attending a funeral for the first time, you may feel a little bit like you’re on pins and needles. While you don’t quite know how they are going to respond, it’s best to prepare them ahead of time. As human beings, we naturally find a measure of comfort in knowing what to expect. This is true for children as well as adults. Just as we prepare our children for the first day of school, for a big move, or for the coming of a new sibling, we must also take the time to prepare them for a funeral.

Your child learns their patterns of behavior from you. The way your child initially views funerals will depend on you and your explanations. By discussing important topics in advance, you can prepare your child and help calm any anxieties.

7 Key Topics to Discuss

1. Discuss what they will see

Your child may feel a bit anxious at first, so try to give them as accurate a picture as possible. Look up the funeral location on the internet and show them what the venue looks like. Will there be a casket or urn? Flower sprays? Show your child pictures and explain the purpose of these items.

Also, depending on the beliefs and values of the person who has died, funeral ceremonies may differ. The funeral of a Catholic person will look different than that of a practicing Jew or an agnostic. You may not always be familiar with some aspects of the ceremony, but if you do know what prayers or rituals to expect, discuss their meaning and purpose with your child.

2. Talk about the emotions they may see in others 

Your child is no stranger to emotion – they feel things every day – but they are probably not used to seeing adults expressing sadness or crying. So, explain to your children that funerals typically elicit emotion. In fact, it’s part of their purpose – to give people an opportunity to publicly mourn (outwardly express) the loss they feel. In the eyes of society, the funeral is an acceptable place to express yourself emotionally. As a result, people display different emotions. Tell your child that they may see some people crying because it’s sad when someone you love dies. They may see other people who don’t look sad, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t. We all show our emotions in different ways.

3. Assure them that their own emotions are normal

Every child will respond differently when confronted with loss. Some are more likely to cry while others seem unfazed. However, it’s important that a child knows that whatever they feel at the funeral is normal. If a child had a close and intimate relationship (as is the case with a parent or sibling) with the person who has died, they may need to cry themselves. Let your child know that this is okay, and it’s good for them to cry if they feel sad. Don’t try to prevent them from expressing their grief. Instead, allow them to feel what they feel. In the long run, it’s better to allow a grieving child time and space to grieve than to make them think their feelings aren’t acceptable or normal.

4. Explain what death is

Naturally, we want to protect our children from what we think could be harmful. However, having an understanding of death is not harmful; it’s necessary (as much as we might wish it wasn’t). In most cases, a child trusts their parent(s) more than any other adult, which is why this information should come from you. Before having a discussion about death, it’s important to take your child’s maturity level into account. Consider how they’ve responded to the death of a pet or an insect or how they respond to stressful situations.

In general, help your child understand the physical aspect of death – the person’s body doesn’t work anymore, and they no longer need it. Depending on your spiritual beliefs, discuss what happens to the person’s soul after death. Be simple, concise, and clear. Don’t be afraid to use the words dead and died. In fact, it’s better not to use euphemisms. For children, euphemisms can be confusing, so tell it like it is in gentle terms.

5. Explain burial & cremation

While your child may have many questions, the most important thing to emphasize is that because the person is dead, they don’t feel pain. When explaining what a casket is, you can also talk about burial. Again, use simple but clear language. Talk about how a hole is dug in the ground, and then the casket (with the body inside) is placed in the hole. Then, everything is covered again by dirt. Your child may ask why this must be done. In whatever words you think best, explain that after a person dies, we must take care of the body with respect and care.

As for cremation, again, make sure they understand that the person feels no pain. As you discuss urns, you can also discuss cremation, how it works, and that the body becomes cremated remains (ashes) after the process is finished. The words you use should depend on the age and personality of your child.

6. Prepare them for seeing a dead person

Seeing a dead person for the first time is often difficult. If you and your child are planning to attend an event where the body will be present, let your child know in advance. Talk with your child about how the dead person will look. You could say they will look like they are sleeping but their chest won’t move because they aren’t breathing. If your child expresses a desire to touch the body, let them know that the person may be cold or hard. Above all, don’t force your child to view or touch the body. You must give them a choice. Some children will want to say goodbye or express love through touch in this way. Just remember, forcing a child to do something they aren’t ready for can do more harm than good.

7. Teach them about funeral etiquette

Every aspect of the funeral will be new to your child, which is why it’s important to discuss funeral etiquette. By doing this, you will also alleviate any fears they may have and help them feel more comfortable. Discuss why we typically wear dark clothing – to symbolize our grief and sadness. Make it clear that they must be respectful in their behavior during any services they attend. You know your child’s behavior tendencies – specifically call attention to what they should not do.

Keep in mind, children are children, and there will likely be a few mishaps, especially if they are under preschool age. If their behavior is distracting to others or begins to disrupt the people around them, you may have to remove them from the service for a quick break. Explain that we need to be considerate of others and that this is a very important time for many people who loved the person who died. You may also offer your child a quiet activity to keep them occupied during the service, such as a coloring book.

Answer Their Questions

Now that you’ve worked hard to prepare your child, it’s time to answer their questions. Answer as best you can. Be honest and straightforward. Let your child’s questions and natural curiosity guide the discussion. They aren’t looking for euphemisms – they are looking for information. As they ask questions, they are processing the death and what it means.

Some questions you may hear:

  • Why do people die?
  • When do people die?
  • Is death forever?
  • Where do you go when you die?
  • Can I still call them?
  • What happened to him/her (the person who died)?
  • Did it hurt?
  • Am I going to die?
  • Are you going to die?
  • Why do we put them in the ground (if it’s a burial)?
  • Are you sure it doesn’t hurt (referring to cremation)?
  • What if I want to talk to them?

Ask If They Want to Participate

According to Dr. Alan Wolfelt, respected author, educator, and grief counselor, participating in actions after the death of a loved one helps us give expression to our grief. He says, “Mourners often don’t know what to do with their grief…. Funerals are made up of a number of ritualistic physical actions, all of which give mourners a way to literally move through the funeral process (and thus through this difficult time of their grief).”

For children, especially those who have lost someone significant in their lives, you might consider inviting them to light a candle in remembrance at the funeral ceremony. You could purchase two identical stuffed animals, placing one with the person who had died and giving one to the child. Thereafter, if the child wants to feel close to the person who is gone, they can hug the stuffed animal close. You could ask if the child wants to draw a picture to place in the casket. If not a picture, some other item. By inviting children to participate, you validate their grief and show them that they, too, are important.

For more helpful information about children and funerals, take a moment to read Life Lessons Children Can Learn at Funerals.

Life Lessons Children Can Learn at Funerals

By Children, Living Well, Meaningful Funerals

Death and funerals are an inescapable part of life. It’s hard to know what to do when our children encounter death for the first time. As much as we would like to protect them from pain and distress, we can’t. But we can teach them how to process death and cope with grief in healthy ways.

Understanding the Purpose of a Funeral

First, it’s always good to start with why we have funerals in the first place. According to respected grief counselor, author, and educator Dr. Alan Wolfelt, the funeral ritual “helps us acknowledge the reality of the death, gives testimony to the life of the deceased, encourages the expression of grief in a way consistent with the culture’s values, provides support to mourners, allows for the embracing of faith and beliefs about life and death, and offers continuity and hope for the living.”

The six needs Dr. Wolfelt outlines above – the 6 needs of mourning – are met through a healing and meaningful funeral ceremony. And similar to adults, children have the same need, right, and privilege to participate in a funeral. In some ways, the structure of the funeral ceremony may be even more important for children because they have not yet learned how to process the deep and sometimes conflicting emotions they may feel.

Life Lessons Children Can Learn at Funerals

Children learn how to participate in funerals.

None of us innately knows what to expect or how to behave at funerals. Instead, we learn by seeing, hearing, and asking questions. Many of us came to understand the dos and don’ts of funerals by attending them and by asking a knowledgeable adult our questions. In order for a child to understand what is appropriate and respectful, to know how to behave in the future, they must learn about funerals and be allowed to see the ceremony in action.

Children learn that death is a natural part of life.

Death is a part of life. Just as a child needs to learn how to deal with disappointment, process explosive emotions, or adapt to social situations, they must also learn how to process death and dying. Children are exposed to death early on. They see dead leaves, bugs, or dead animals. Our children know more about death than we might expect. Giving them an opportunity to learn and understand death in a controlled setting is valuable.

Children learn how to say goodbye.

Two of the important things that happen at funerals are that 1) mourners have the chance to say goodbye and 2) there is a public acknowledgment that the relationship has changed (from one of presence to one of memory). Both are necessary for adults and children. Children need an opportunity to say goodbye, especially with close relationships (as is the case with a parent, sibling, grandparent, best friend, teacher, etc.). As part of saying goodbye, you might consider allowing an age-appropriate, willing child to participate in the ceremony by lighting a candle, reading a short passage, or singing a song.

Children witness the complexity of emotions.

Human beings are complex and messy. We experience many different emotions, and sometimes, we don’t even know why we feel a certain way. Children need to understand early that everyone experiences emotion, and everyone deals with their emotion differently. And ultimately, each child must learn how to process and deal with their own emotions. The funeral gives parents an opportunity to help children process their emotions by answering questions or talking about what happened after the ceremony. Children who were close to the person who died may need to process feelings of anger, abandonment, and fear. Observing others process their emotions through the funeral will give children examples of how to cope with grief in a healthy way.

Children see the value of supporting each other.

The funeral activates a system of support for those who are mourning. Friends and neighbors bring food, offer to watch the kids, or help in whatever ways they can. Condolences and heartfelt thoughts are offered to the bereaved. Children need to see the value of community support and learn how to offer such support in the future. For example, young children may ask why adults around them are crying, and they may practice offering to comfort others and showing support by giving a hug or patting a family member on the back. In some ways, children offer a kind of support without even trying: hope for the future.

Children learn how to honor and respect the lives of others.

If you remember Dr. Wolfelt’s quote, one of the purposes of a funeral is to “give testimony to the life of the deceased.” In other words, to recall our memories and share them with others. By doing this, we honor and respect the life that was lived and begin our grief journey on the right foot. Through the eulogy, the personalization of the ceremony or gathering, and other elements of a meaningful funeral, children learn that we must honor and respect the lives of others.

Children learn to treasure life.

If a funeral is done well, it touches the hearts of those in attendance. In fact, it should teach all of us just how precious life is and remind us how we want to live. Dr. Wolfelt puts it this way, “People who take the time and make the effort to create meaningful funeral arrangements…remember and reconnect with what is most meaningful to them in life. They strengthen bonds with family members and friends. They emerge changed, more authentic and purposeful. The best funerals remind us how we should live.” What an important lesson to learn early in life – to value the life you have and make the most of it.

What if my child isn’t ready?

Whether or not your child attends a funeral is entirely up to you. You know your child best – what they can handle and what they can’t. For infants and toddlers (ages 4 and under), attendance will not necessarily have any great meaning or significance, but for those who are preschool aged or older, it’s best to thoughtfully consider how to proceed. While we don’t want to force children to do something, we also need to teach them how to cope with and handle the difficulties life will throw at them. It’s up to you to decide if they are ready.

If you decide not to take your child to the funeral ceremony, here are some other options:

  1. Check to see if the funeral home has childcare available (this service is sometimes offered).
  2. Hire a babysitter. If you know a number of other parents who plan to attend the funeral, you may be able to hire one or two babysitters to watch a larger number of children.

What if my child is too young to understand what is happening at the funeral?

No matter what his or her age, if your child has lost a close family member, help them find a way to process their emotions as they grow up by giving them what a funeral ceremony provides for an adult. Find ways to acknowledge the death, remember the life, offer comfort and support, help them express their feelings about the loss, and help them create meaning and identity as they develop a relationship with their deceased loved one based on the memories shared by adults in their lives. You might take them to visit the cemetery or tell stories every year on their loved one’s birthday. Throughout the year, incorporate traditions, rituals, crafts, and keepsakes as part of your child’s grieving process.

The important thing to remember is that your child will need to come to terms with a significant loss at every stage of development until adulthood. So, keep bringing back the lessons learned from the funeral year after year. Your consistency over the years will help your child grow up feeling like they know who the person was and who they are as a result, which is the biggest life lesson of all.

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