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How do you help your child or children to grieve after the bereavement/death of a parent

Updated on February 10, 2011

How do children deal with bereavement?

Having a family member such as a parent die is one of the worst experiences of anyone’s life, but for a child losing a parent can be much worse. All children deal with grief differently, just as adults do, and because of this, before you approach any issues relating to the grieving process with your child you should take into account their age, personality and if they have encountered death before, maybe with a grandparent, friend of the family or maybe even a pet.

Here I am going to try and give you the facts on how health professions and so called experts feel child bereavement should be treated. Afterwards I am going to recall my own experience having lost my father when I was just 12 years old to cancer.

The so called facts of dealing with a grieving child

Children of all ages need help with their grieving process. It may not come naturally for them to talk or show their feelings, so, as the surviving parent it usually falls on you to provide the help and support they need during this time, even though you are probably struggling yourself. If you feel that you are unable to talk to your child because of your own grief, try to get a close friend to do so.

With very young children, drawing pictures of the relative that has died can encourage this. With older children, if they are struggling to talk, writing a story about an event that changed their life, or a family holiday they remember is a good way of opening them up to their feelings. It is important to remember that even though you are grieving and probably don't want your child to see you upset or crying, you must show your child that it is OK to cry and that you know how they feel.

Very often after someone has died your child may ask very random questions. 'What will happen to me if Mum/Dad dies too? Will I die like them? Was it because of something I did?' If your child does ask any questions like this, it is very important to reassure them that it was obviously NOT their fault, and that they will not die in the same manner as their parent. Answer the questions as honestly as you can, explaining what happened and why. This helps to prevent confusion with ½ truths. it is important not to use ‘Euphemisms’ such as ‘they went away’ or ‘they went to sleep’. These sorts of statements can inevitably cause your child to have problems going to sleep, and they may be afraid that people will not come back when they just pops to the shop.

After the relative has died you may find that your child becomes withdrawn or maybe starts to get into trouble at school. If this happens it is usually a cry for help and should be treated as such. Try to get their school involved, as many schools now have counselling programmes set up within them. Counselling is good for the whole family and should be encouraged. However it is important to encourage your child to still enjoy life, take them to the sports clubs, shopping and parties. As sad as you feel, it is true that ‘Life goes on’.

Where life ends new life begins!
Where life ends new life begins!

A little light reading that could help the situation

My story

My father was diagnosed with cancer when I was 11 years old and my older brother 17. The doctors advised my parents not to tell me as they felt that I was to young to understand the situation fully, but were advised to explain things to my brother. During the 8 months after my Dad was diagnosed I carried on with life as normal. Yes, at times I felt there was something that I was missing, after all Dad wasn’t going to work anymore, instead he went to see spiritual healers where he sometimes took me, and we had people come and visit which just was not the norm.

My brother however was very different. He started to spend less and less time at home. He couldn’t bear to be in the same room as Dad at the end. I didn’t really take much notice of it at the time, but I realise now as an adult this was down to his fear of the unknown.  He was probably thinking that he would be alone with Dad when he died if he spent to much time with him. I don’t know how things were explained to him back then, it was some 19 years ago now, but I can imagine that it was just the basics of what was wrong and that Dad was going to die.

After Dad died, I remember just literally carrying on as normal, going to school, I even went to a friend’s birthday party 3 days after it happened. Nobody really talked to me, but it was ok. As time went on I became slightly withdrawn, not really feeling a part of anything, I still feel that way sometimes today, but have the confidence of life to get me through. It was a few years before I started to realise that I didn’t really know all there was to know about his death and started to ask the questions (I was ready to know now). Mum still found it difficult to talk so I turned to teachers and close friends, eventually after 2 years I knew how he died.  I also remember asking Mum one day were I would live if anything happened to her. I cannot remember how she answered it, but I am sure she reassured me, as it never came up again.

I was encouraged to have counselling at school, which was of great help. Unfortunately nobody else would have any. My counsellor even offered to come to the house to see us all as a group.

My brother, well he coped much differently, by wearing his feeling on his sleeve.  He became angry and bad tempered at everyone around him. He would become violent, not towards us but towards objects within the home and then go to the pub and drown his sorrows. It took nearly 10 years of grieving, motor vehicle accidents and partial suicide attempts before he met his now wife.  He still doesn’t deal with death very well.

19 years on and we are all doing ok now. I still have moments when I grieve, the birth of my son was one of those moments, and my brothers very close friend died in an accident a short while ago, and this made us all think about the past.  Both of our marriages were hard on Mum but we find that as much as it hurts talking about it still helps.

Please leave your comments on this hub

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    • nasus loops profile imageAUTHOR

      nasus loops 

      7 years ago from Fenland

      I am sorry to hear that your son's father committed suicide. This is a very difficult time for all involved, but you should encourage your son to talk as much as possible about his feelings. Although at 9 he may not understand fully about what has happened, he will have some understanding. If you feel he is not coping well you should see your doctor to arrange specialist counselling for your son. Also you should speak to his school as they should be able to help and support you.

      My thoughts are with you both at this difficult time.

    • profile image

      His mom 

      7 years ago

      My 9 year old sons dad commited suicide yesterday. I just don't know what to do.

    • nasus loops profile imageAUTHOR

      nasus loops 

      7 years ago from Fenland

      Hi Maria. Thanks for your comment. I can not myself imagine witnessing a death, it must be dreadful. You are not alone with the hole inside of you, many who have had a close member of their family die feel this way (I know I do). I myself don't visit my fathers grave often as I find it very difficult when I think of all the things he has missed. I don't think being an only child makes it easy or harder, you still have to deal with the lose of a close relative.

    • Maria Cecilia profile image

      Maria Cecilia 

      7 years ago from Philippines

      I can't imagine about a child witnessing a death... I my self was not really good in dealing with it. My parents died in different years and yet there is still a hole in me...I don't visit their grave often... It maybe unconsciously hating the feeling...maybe it's really different if you are an only child....

    • nasus loops profile imageAUTHOR

      nasus loops 

      7 years ago from Fenland

      Hi Bayoulady.

      I am sorry to hear about this young girl. It was have been absolutely horrific for her to see what she did. However, what you did by just being there at the time was enough for her to overcome her grief and learn to carry on living.

      For yourself I can tell you that losing your father is one of the hardest things that will ever happen to you, and because of this you can not grieve to much. I still grieve 19 years after my father died and I know my brother and mum do too.

    • bayoulady profile image


      7 years ago from Northern Louisiana,USA

      I was in my third year of teaching elementary school(second grade) when a sweet little girl ,Angelique,in my class watched her grandmother and mother be shot and killed on her front porch by her mother's boyfriend.He turned the gun on her, but told her to lay on the ground and he wouldn't kill her.When he ran, they caught him within minutes. The aunt, grieving herself, sent her to school just a few days later. That child sat in my lap for days. I couldn't find the right words to say. So I felt I could at least accept her grief, and be there for her.Interestingly, NONE of my students complained or acted jealous. It was months before she acted like herself. The state did give her vistim's counseling.She had to have her testimony videoed for the trial.SO SAD to watch a child grieve like that. DO they ever get over it? MY Daddy died as I held his hand 8 years ago, and I remember it like it was a few days ago.I still grieve ....maybe too much. I dunno....


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