Advice for the Death of a Family Member

Death of a grandparent or other relative

The death of a grandparent is often a child’s first encounter with human loss of life and grieving. If your children have lost a grandparent, you can explain that most people do not die until they are very old, to assuage any fears they have that you or they may die next. If the relative who has died was a younger person like an aunt or an uncle, explain that they had an illness (or accident) that does not usually take the lives of younger people.

Death of a parent

This is a much more difficult and traumatic event for a child of any age to comprehend and cope with. The remaining parent is likely to be very upset, and showing sadness is fine. But choose a time when you feel you can share the news without feeling out of control of your emotions. Explain the death using developmentally appropriate words and make sure children know that they will still be taken care of. In the case of the death of a parent, no matter what the child’s age, professional counseling is often a good idea.

Terminally ill parent

If you are a parent or caregiver, keep the child up-to-date on the status of his parent’s health so that nothing comes as a surprise and so that he is not kept wondering and worrying about being there when his parent dies. If possible schedule regular one-on-one time quietly reading, playing cards or just talking with his sick parent so that he has some good memories of how they spent their time together toward the end of his parent’s life.

If you are a teacher or counselor at the child’s school, know that he may need more support and flexibility at this time. Keeping some routines and expectations is still important, as they can help normalize things for a child, making him feel more secure and giving him a break from his worries. Stay in touch with the child’s family and let a caregiver know if you believe the child needs additional support or even to share good news if he has had a particularly good day.

Death of a sibling

It is very unexpected when children die, whether by accident or due to illness. In young children such a loss often brings up questions from the surviving child of whether he is also in danger. Parents who suffer the loss of a child are likely to be inconsolable themselves, but it is important to reassure your children that they are safe and you will be there for them. Let them ask questions and know that they may go in and out of grief for many months while you as the parent are more likely to feel it continuously. Do not hesitate to bring in additional adult caregivers, such as a grandparent, aunt or friend for support.