How to help children through grief? As parents, we want to fix things for our kids and keep them from experiencing pain. But as much as we’d like to, we can’t fix their grief. We can, however, give them tools and cues and help as they navigate the deep pain they never wanted.
Helping my children through their grief is something I never expected to be part of parenting. And yet, our children are growing up in a hurting world. By the time a child reaches 18 years old, one in five will have experienced the loss of a grandparent, sibling, parent, or friend.*
That means it’s not only parents who are helping children through grief, but coaches, teachers, youth leaders and others are very likely dealing with kids who have suffered a deep loss.
My own experience in this came after my huusband passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. I became a widow and single mom to our seven children. The youngest two were four and six years old, I had tween and teen boys of 12, 14 and 16 years old, and my oldest were 17 and 19 years old.
Their grief looked different than mine and they each grieved differently. It affected their schooling, their interests and hobbies, their friendships and the rhythm of our home.
Excruciating as my grief has been, seeing my children in pain has been harder still. This is not the childhood I would have chosen for them. And yet, before they were even in my womb, God knew this would be my children’s story.
So as a mom, it’s become one of my chief purposes to help my children grieve well. I see my role not only to love them in their loss, but to help them process their grief and grow through it. Here are a few ways I’ve found to help children through grief.
1. Give each other grace to grieve.
Days after Dan’s memorial service, the kids and I gathered on couches and chairs in the family room. It was our normal morning Bible time, but I first needed to address our churning emotions. We’re going to need to give each other grace to grieve, I announced. Grief looks different for each of us. Children grieve differently than adults, teens grieve differently than preschoolers and girls grieve differently than boys.
I didn’t hide my sadness from my kids. They saw me cry as we did Bible time each morning, recalled stories of their dad and faced new tasks together. My children’s emotions often surfaced at inopportune times. My teen daughter would invariably need to talk just as I was dragging myself to bed and my four-year-old broke down every day for well over a year saying she missed her dad. Grace to grieve, I told myself, and each time I stopped what I was doing to enter the conversation on their terms.
2. Create a safe space for hard questions.
I was surprised when my three older kids approached me the night after my husband’s death, wanting to know if we had enough money. It was a real fear for them. Sitting down together, I gave them enough information to assure them we’d be okay without disclosing every financial detail.
Grief triggers other hard questions and even young kids often understand more than we think. Will you die too, mom? Will I die young like dad? Why didn’t God answer my prayer? I answered honestly with the information that child could handle. We looked up scripture and trusted God with questions scripture doesn’t answer.
3. Make sure they aren’t avoiding grief.
Grief is excruciating. The emotions of loss — sadness, anger, frustration, loneliness, longing, regret, despair, envy and more — are heavy and hard. They unsettle us and we often don’t know what to do with these emotions.
But trying to mask, escape or fast forward through the pain will not let us off the hook of grief. If we don’t grieve on our terms now, grief will come back on its terms later. So it’s super important to help our children through their hard emotions. Processing grief takes time. It will take your listening ear.
Your teen will likely want to talk when you’re exhausted and headed to bed. Your preschoolers will want the same conversation over and over. They are each processing their grief on their terms and it’s our job, as parents, to be as available as possible. You may also want to seek out a Biblical counselor, grief support group (Griefshare for children for example) or a grief camp to help your children talk through their loss.
4. Understand that children grieve differently than adults.
Children grieve differently than adults. Toddlers grieve differently than teens. Girls grieve differently than boys. Children grieve differently than adults. Each loss is different, the relationships are different and the personalities are different. The way our children grieve will depend on their ages and stages.
Preschoolers are very concrete. They can’t understand the permanency of death or the nature of heaven. They may ask lots of questions or share about their loss with a stranger. It’s important to keep addressing their need to know depsite the awkward conversations, hard questions or repetitive comments.
Children will often grieve in spurts. One moment, they will play with friends like everything’s normal or go right back to school, but in the quiet of your home or at bedtime, they may open up about their sadness. Their grief may show up in their grades, inattentiveness, sleep, eating, mood swings or a loss of passions like sports or music. Help them understand that grief affects us cognitively, emotionally and physically and that it’s normal to feel these things. I also assured my children that they wouldn’t always feel like this.
I found my tweens and teen boys wanted to go back to life as normal. Now, it wasn’t normal, but they didn’t want to be singled out at church or in sports at that kids whose dad had died. I think their time at church, with friends and on the field became a refuge from the hard emotions and massive change in loss. But a teacher, coach, friend and parent who can give an atta-boy or keep the conversation open serves them as they continue to process their loss.
My teen daughter was very open about her emotions and all the brutal change we were navigating. She expressed the most and wanted to talk most often. As a parent, it can be a lot because you’re also probably navigating you’re own grief. I didn’t do this perfectly but I tried my best to be available. Youth leaders and compassionate friends were also super helpful to listen and let her know they were there for her.
5. Keep the conversation open.
Children will often grow into grief as they age and understand both the permanency of death and the full nature of a father, mom, grandparent or sibling. “Oh, that’s what a father does,” I’ve sensed my youngest realizing as dads hand their daughters post-recital bouquets or she sees pictures of friends at the daddy-daughter dance.
I’ve tried to keep an ongoing conversation. After the first couple months, my kids rarely talked about their feelings or cried openly, though research tells us children think about their deceased parent daily. I’ve read kids don’t want to make it harder on the grieving parent.
Telling stories about their dad became a great way to keep an open conversation. We also watched a few grief videos at home and read books on heaven and loss together. I would sometimes put into words what is obvious in the moment – dad would have loved watching your game tonight or I know it was hard doing that without your dad.
6. Provide a Biblical context for suffering.
While the suffering that comes with loss would never be our first choice for our children, it’s an opportunity to teach them foundational Biblical truths that will serve them their entire lives. In a world obsessed with itself, our kids need to know this world is not our home. Suffering is a stark reminder that we live in a fallen world and our only hope is Christ. Death reminds us that a life of any measure is short but that being about our Father’s business can make it deep.
It’s an opportunity to help our children grow in compassion. In their own pain, we can help them see others around them who are also hurting. As God comforts them in this loss, they will be able to reach out to others and comfort them. Scripture tells us God is the “Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Cor. 1:3-4)
7. Let books help with grief.
Books are a great way to help our children understand some of the hard concepts in loss. They also keep the conversation going and open a way for children to process their loss as you read together.
We’ve long been a read-aloud family, and after Dan died I used both picture and chapter books to help my children in their grief. Some books talked about loss directly, while others were fictional or biographical stories of families who’d suffered a loss and were continuing to thrive as a family.
These are some of my favorite books for children’s grief. Some of them share about heaven or loss and some talk more generally about the nature of suffering for the believer. I can’t recommend enough using books to help children through grief.
Suffering is not the childhood I would have chosen for my kids. My prayer has been that my children and I won’t just accept God’s will but that we will agree with it. That we will agree God is right and good and that He has used what threatened to undo us to shape us as his own.