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How to help your children cope with the death of a parent

How to help your children cope with the death of a parent

“At some point, we’re going to leave this world. Do I know when? Absolutely not!!!” – Terrell Owens.

This can only begin to describe how unexpected & ambiguous this moment in life is, especially for a child. This phase is emotionally & psychologically taxing for the child and the surviving parent. The response to this initial loss could set the context for future “losses” the child would have to bear in life. As a parent, we need to tread on eggshells while dealing with our children during the initial phase of this period. Shock, anger, fear, guilt, and anxiety are common emotions that could haunt a child at this juncture.

According to experts like Mathew Lorber, Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Emily Touchstone & Shannon Karl, the most important thing is to listen to your children and consider their age before attempting to explain the loss of their parent. If not addressed constructively, children could start creating stories in their mind to get by with this loss. A common misconception a single parent may have is that their child is too young to understand the gravity of death. Dismissing a child’s perceptive abilities is an oversight.

  • Most experts believe that before the age of six, most children believe death is temporary.
  • From ages six to nine, they begin to understand that it’s final.
  • Somewhere around nine years old, most children have an understanding of death that’s similar to adults’.

Align your explanations to their age and let them know that asking questions is fine. Phrases such as long sleep, big trip, away for some time may confuse children and lead to further psychological concerns.


Getting through the initial days


Hug your children. Reassure them they are loved and cared for. Photo by Matt Hoffman on Unsplash


After the loss of a parent, you can expect your child to ask questions like “what happened to mummy?”, “When will daddy come home?” These questions may be repetitive and very consistent, but it helps them to start to grasp the finality of death. These questions don’t have any deeper meaning but are merely a way of expressing their anguish.

During this time hiding our own feelings and pretending that things are fine are not advisable. For example, If the child sees you crying, explain why and what you are feeling. You could say, “I’m feeling sad, because I’m missing mummy, I could use a hug.”

Children acting out scenarios about death is also a healthy way to process a child’s feelings. As a single parent, we could step in and clear out any misconceptions in those scenarios. For example, Reena pretends she is feeding her doll ice-cream, and suddenly the doll gets sick and dies. You intervene by saying “Dad’s heart stopped working because it was weak and not because of something he ate.”


Tips for explaining any form of death

Experts offer a few tips that are helpful in all cases:

When talking about death, use simple, clear words: To break the news that someone has died, approach your child in a caring way. Use words that are easy to understand. For example, “I have some sad news to tell you. Daddy died today.” Pause to give your child a moment to take in your words. Avoid beating around the bush.

Listen and comfort: Every child reacts differently to learning that a loved one has died. Some cry, others have questions whereas a few may not seem to react at all. That’s perfectly fine. Stay with your child to offer reassurance, answer their questions or just be together.

Put emotions into words: Encourage kids to say what they’re thinking and feeling in the days, weeks, and months following the loss. Talking about your own feelings will help your kids be aware of their own and voice their innermost emotions. Say things like, “I know you’re feeling very sad. I’m sad, too. We both loved mummy so much, and she loved us, too.”

Tell your child what to expect: If the death of a loved one means changes in your child’s life, fend off any worries or fears by explaining what will happen. For example, “Aunty Sarita will pick you up from the school like dad used to.” Or, “I need to stay with Nani for some time. That means you will be staying with Aunty Sarita for a few days. But I’ll talk to you every day, and I’ll be back on Sunday.”



Talk about funerals and rituals: Allow children to join in rituals like viewings, funerals, or memorial services. Tell your child ahead of time what will happen. For example, “Lots of people who loved Mom will be there. We will sing, pray, and talk about her life. People might cry and hug. People will say things like, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ or, ‘I’m so sorry.’ Those are polite and kind things to say to the family at a funeral. We can say, ‘Thank you,’ or, ‘Thanks for coming.’ You can stay near me and hold my hand if you want.” You might need to explain burial or cremation. Share your family’s beliefs about what happens to a person after death.

Give your child a roleHaving a small, active role can help kids master an unfamiliar and emotional situation such as a funeral or cremation service. For example, you might invite your child to read a poem, pick a song to be played. Let kids decide if they want to take part, no matter how minute the role and how.  

Help your child remember the person: In the days, weeks and months to follow, encourage your child to draw pictures or write down favorite stories of their parent. Commemorate the lost parent with a special project, such as making a memory book or making a small pillow from the person’s clothing. Don’t avoid mentioning the dead parent. Recalling and sharing happy memories helps heal grief and activates positive feelings.

Maintain a routine: Keep children on their regular schedule if possible. Any sense of stability makes them feel more comfortable. In doing this, you help ease some of the behavioral changes that could crop up in young kids at this stage, such as acting silly or hyper or regressing to old habits like bed-wetting or thumb-sucking. For example, continue their household chores, playtime, studies, etc.

Self-help books: Considering age-appropriate books about death that would enhance the self-healing & grieving process.

To sum it up a grieving child needs information that is clear and comprehensible for their development level. They need a lot of reassurance that they are safe and loved. It’s crucial to create a space where they feel comfortable expressing their feelings openly. Children need to maintain their activities and interests as they desire and revisit questions regularly.

The healing process takes time, but you’ll get through it together!



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