How to Help a Child Cope With Loss

Losing a loved one—or beloved pet—is one of the hardest parts of life, but death is a particularly tough concept for young children to understand. It can be confusing and frightening. Grieving is a process, and children take their cues from you. Showing them healthy ways to grieve will help your child accept the loss and begin to move on. For insight, consulted Gerald Koocher, PhD, professor of psychology and associate provost of the Department of Health Sciences at Simmons College in Boston and Rhondda Waddell, a professor of social work at Saint Leo University near Tampa, Florida who specializes in pet social work.

According to Koocher, three points should be considered when discussing death with children:

  • The age of the child you are trying to help
  • The nature of the relationship he or she had with the deceased-close or distant?
  • The context of the death—was it sudden or anticipated?

"Very young children (preschoolers, 5 and 6-year-olds) may not recognize that a loss is permanent. Around the age of 6 or 7, reason sets in and there is a shift in the way children think-they begin to take advantage of what they learn from others," Koocher explains. "Up until that point, their thoughts are based entirely around their own experiences."

To illustrate his point, Koocher recalls a young patient who attempted to speak with his recently deceased grandfather through the toilet. "The boy's only experience with death was when his goldfish died and got flushed away. For him, death was filtered through that experience."

The key is to be supportive of your child and not to shut down her pain. "Recognize the discomfort and really listen to what he or she is concerned about," Koocher advises. A child's worries are not the same as yours. "Most kids want to know what will happen to them if Mommy or Daddy dies." Knowing who will care for them in that unlikely event is comforting to children. "Reassure your child that you and your spouse are healthy and plan to live a long life but if either of you die, grandma and grandpa [or whoever you've established] will care for him."

After a loss, it's not unusual for a child's play to reflect the message she's received. "One mother I counseled was concerned when she found her daughter telling her dolls that she was moving to grandma's house since her parents were dead," Koocher remembers. "Children play out their worries. This little girl was internalizing the message she had been given by her parents. It was all perfectly normal."

Crying is also to be expected. If your child is crying, resist the urge to stop him. Koocher says it's much better to share the loss together. "If a child misses his deceased sister and talking about it also makes you upset, hug your child and tell him you are sad too because you also miss his sister but glad because you still have him and he makes you feel better."

Don't hide your own grief. "Many parents wrongly believe they protect their kids when they cry behind closed doors. When your children see your pain and ask about it, they get the message that showing feelings is okay. That is a emotionally healthy response," Koocher explains.

Another no-no is using euphemisms to explain death. "Don't say grandpa went to sleep or is taking a long vacation if in fact he died. "The child may become afraid to go to go to bed or be left wondering why grandpa didn't say goodbye. This does a huge disservice to a child and creates more worries for him. And it risks making him feel unloved," warns the expert, adding that even the youngest children can understand that life comes to an end. "A simple way to explain it may be that life ends the way a favorite book ends. Their life-or the story-may be over but you will always carry around a part of the person inside of you. Nothing can take that away."

The Loss of a Pet

Saying goodbye to a pet can be as significant for a child as losing a close family member, says Rhondda Waddell. "Kids get attached to animals for the same reason everyone else does-unconditional love. A pet can be a protector, a peer, and a playmate for a child. Like an imaginary friend, pets are always there for them."

The size of a pet has little to do with the relationship. "Children can get the same kind of connection with a goldfish, bird, or rabbit. For them, a pet is pure love," Waddell explains.

When a pet dies, Waddell also recommends an honest approach. "Younger children may not be able to understand death and loss. But let them know that the animal is gone and is no longer suffering if it did suffer. If the pet died suddenly, explain that it won't be in pain anymore."

Older children should be made aware of the euthanasia process if that is the way the pet's life ended. "Explain that it was not the vet's fault, that the pet died but that sometimes animals—just like people—don't make it."

Evaluating the child's reaction to the news of a pet's death can give you important clues about the level of pain and anxiety he feels. "Holding a burial in your yard, making a memorial scrapbook, or putting the animal's collar in a place of honor gives children the opportunity to say goodbye and express their emotion," Waddell explains. "Coming to terms with loss is to be able to have respect for it."

Waddell also recommends exploring books and movies on the subject of loss together. "There are wonderful ones out there, but be sure you do it together. Don't just hand over a DVD. Sit down with your child and be sure to talk about it afterwards. Seeing how other families—even fictional ones—cope with loss can help normalize the situation for them."

Replacing a pet with another is a personal choice. "When a child can really talk about the deceased pet and feel good about the life that pet enjoyed, the child is probably ready to start a new relationship."

Gerry Koocher, PhD, dean and professor of the dept. of health sciences. Simmons College. Boston, MA

Rhondda Waddell, professor of social work. Saint Leo University, Tampa, FL