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Helping Your Child Through a Loss

Dear Elizabeth,
My father-in-law just died. He and my 3-year-old daughter were very close. How can I help her cope with this loss & understand that she can’t be with grandpa anymore?
Irika Clark
Elizabeth's Tips
Elizabeth Sanchez
Elizabeth Sanchez
  • Answer questions about death openly & honestly
  • Encourage kids to talk about their fears & validate their feelings
  • Be sensitive to changes in behavior
  • Understand that grief can reoccur
  • Work with circle of care
Expert Advice
Chandra Ghosh Ippen, Ph.D.
Chandra Ghosh Ippen, Ph.D.
National Child Traumatic Stress Network
How Adults Should Respond
Be open and honest. If children see that adults around them are upset, and you tell them that nothing is wrong, they will be even more confused and worried. Give them age-appropriate information. Share your family’s cultural beliefs about death. One beautiful way a mother explained her father’s death to her son was as follows:

“Daddy got really really hurt. The doctors tried to help him, but they couldn’t. Now daddy is a star in the sky, but you are sad, and I am sad because we miss him. We can still say goodnight to him every night. It’s not the same, but I think daddy can see and hear us.”

Try not to say things that may be confusing, such as, “Grandpa is asleep.” This is something we often say, but it can lead children to fear sleep.

Expressions of Grief
There are many ways children may express their grief, including:
  • Fearing separations from others
  • New fears, such as being scared of the dark, loud noises, or monsters
  • Sleeping problems
  • Angry behavior – temper tantrums, irritability, aggressive behavior, hitting, and biting
  • Regressing, losing abilities they once had, acting like a baby
  • Crying
  • Trying to cheer everyone up
  • Becoming withdrawn or quiet
Providers Can Help Kids Cope
Everyone in the child’s circle of care should communicate with each other about the loss, in particular, about things that remind the child of the loss (activities they used to do with the person, birthdays and holidays, that person’s favorite things).

Help the child talk about the loss and keep memories alive. Just because people die does not mean we lose our connection to them. Speak to her feelings. Support her feelings of sadness, grief, and anger. You can say, “You miss your grandfather – you loved him very much and now you are sad and mad that he died.”

Talk to each other about the family’s cultural views about death and about the way the caregivers want the child to understand what happened, so that if the child begins to talk about the death or person, the way the school and the home talk about it is consistent.

Understand the child may need special attention. Providers can help the child to return to normal routines. Be sensitive to the fact that the child may be especially sensitive to changes in routines or caregivers and to separations.

Adults and Their Own Grief
Remember, it is normal for you to grieve, to cry, and to feel sad. When your child sees you upset, it is important to talk about it openly with your child. What you can do is share how you are feeling (sad, upset). Talk about why you feel that way – this person was very important to you and you miss them.

Let your child know that even though you are upset, you will be OK. You child needs to know this to feel safe and protected. If you feel that you are overwhelmed, or if you are unsure that you will be OK, make sure to take care of yourself. Do things that are pleasant, rest, relax, and seek help if necessary.
Child Care Provider Comments
Janis Sanders
Janis Sanders
Grandmother of four
My grandchildren’s great grandmother (my mother-in-law) passed away a few months ago. She was 80 years old. We try not to pressure the grandchildren to talk about her death. We are just prepared when they do come to us. We remember the good times we had with her. We try to remind them about the happy times so that they can tell their children how great she was. They have asked questions like, “Where is she? Is she in heaven?” We always respond, “Yes, she is in heaven.”
Eve Del Real
Eve Del Real
Child Care Provider for 3 years
I had a four-year-old girl in my care who lost her mom due to a terminal illness. The little girl was juggled around between her aunt and her grandmother. She was a very strong child but she was very introverted. It took her a really long time to open up to us and the other children. When her grandmother took her to the funeral, it actually seemed to make her feel better. After the funeral, she came to me and said, ”My mommy is resting. She’s in heaven now.”
Linda Dahan
Linda Dahan
Mother of two
My husband died about a year ago in a scuba diving accident. My daughter was 3-years-old at the time. When we had his funeral, I thought that if I explained to my daughter that Daddy was going into the ground, then maybe she would understand the finality of it. But then, she started asking questions like, “I want to see him. What does he look like?” She would close her eyes and ask, “Does he look like this?” I would just say, “Yes.”

Recently, she whispered in my ear, “I want a new Daddy, just like our old Daddy.” So I asked, “Well, what was your old Daddy like?” And she answered, “He would play kickball with me and take me in the hot tub.” We have friends with parents who are divorced and the children live with their Mom so, my daughter relates their situation to being like hers, and never asks where their father is.

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