Death is difficult.  It’s difficult to understand; it’s difficult to put into words and; it’s difficult to cope.

For this reason, death all too often goes unspoken.

In these cases, “Mum’s the word” … no one talks about it, no one acknowledges it, and, therefore no one processes through it.  This can be even more evident when the death is unexpected, violent, or a family matter.

The grieving process can be difficult not only for children but adults, as well.  If you, as a parent or caregiver, struggle with the grieving process, can you imagine the struggles of a child?  Can you imagine the QUESTIONS a child may have after someone dies?  Can you imagine the UNCERTAINTIES a child may have after someone dies?  Can you imagine the FEARS a child may have after someone dies?

I was fortunate enough to attend a training presented by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.  Dr. Wolfelt is the Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado and is an author and educator on grief-related topics. 

While at the training, I bought the book Finding the Words.  In the book, Dr. Wolfelt provides dialogues to help parents and caregivers “find the words” to effectively talk to a child after a death occurs.  Each chapter presents a different scenario (Death of a Parent, Death of a Pet, Death by Homicide or Manslaughter, etc.) and provides dialogues for the different age groups.

In his book, Dr. Wolfelt talks about the difference between grief and mourning; grief being an “internal process” and mourning being an “external, shared experience”; both important in the equation of healing.  He described mourning as “grief gone public”.  This explanation has stuck with me.

One of his presentations was entitled “Exploring Misconceptions of Suicide and Grief”.  Boy did that fit the bill for me!!  I realized I had numerous misconceptions regarding death, grief, and mourning. 

Because of the insight I gained, I wanted to share a little of what I learned with all my readers. 

Dr. Wolfelt’s Guidelines to Talking to Grieving Children:

        1.  Talk Openly about Death

Talk about the death.  Don’t act as if the death didn’t happen or as if the feelings will magically go away.  Make sure language and details are consistent with the age of the child.  Younger children will require simpler terms and language than teenagers.  Talk about thoughts and feelings associated with the death as well as personal beliefs regarding death, in general.

2.  Share Your Feelings

If you want to cry… CRY.  If you’re sad… SAY YOU’RE SAD!  Allow your child the opportunity to see and hear how the death has impacted you.  This will allow him to recognize that he’s not alone in his grief and that others are experiencing some of the same feelings as him.  This experience will also help to “normalize” the grieving process rather than having it appear as if the thoughts and feelings are specific ONLY to him.

3.  Be Honest and Direct

Get to the point!  There’s no need to go into detail or elaborate when talking to your child about death.  Provide information and answers that are accurate and to-the-point.

4.  Avoid Euphemisms

Merriam-Webster defines a euphemism as “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant.”

Dr. Wolfelt encourages using the words death and dying rather than euphemisms that may be more confusing to children, such as “passed away”, “sleeping”, or “with the angels”.

5. Teach what You Believe

“What happens when you die?” or “What happens to our bodies when we die?”  These are questions that will more than likely come up when talking with a child about death so BE READY!   This is a great opportunity for you to teach your child what YOU believe happens after death.

6.  Give Inviting, Loving Nonverbal Cues

My first thought when reading this guideline… Be present!  This is a good reminder that being present doesn’t only involve verbal cues but nonverbal cues, as well.

Nonverbal characteristics of ‘being present’ can include the following: being the shoulders to cry on, the arms that hold him, or the ears that listen when he’s ready to talk.  Be sure to give your child lots of affection.  Lots of hugs and lots of kisses.

Close proximity, eye contact, and gentle touches, can provide a safe and welcoming environment for your child to openly communicate thoughts and feelings.

7.  Attend to Your Own Grief

As a counselor, regardless the concern for the child, I ALWAYS encourage my parents to engage in self-care and self-nurturing behaviors… Be sure YOU’RE OKAY!  Why you ask??

To fully care for your child, you must FIRST fully care for yourself!

Please REPEAT!

To fully care for your child, you must FIRST fully care for yourself!

You’re NO help to your grieving child, if you’re unable to grieve yourself.  DO NOT put yourself on the back burner.  Take care of your OWN needs so you can better care for your child!  This might require you to call in some reinforcements to help watch your child while you take some time for yourself.

As parents, we feel the need to care for, love, and protect our children.  Some parents may think they’re doing just that when they choose to not talk about the death, not talk about the person who died, or not allow their child to move at their own pace through the grieving process. 

Dr. Wolfelt explains that unresolved grief can lead to “chronic grief”; a condition that has the potential to create more serious consequences to a person’s physical and/or mental health.

Take notice to changes in your child’s behavior.  Don’t hesitate to contact family, friends, or a professional for additional support or information on grief.





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