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General Guidelines for Helping Children Who Are Grieving

Here are some general guidelines for helping children when they are grieving:

  • Use simple, clear words. Use words the child can understand. Use correct medical terms when talking about disease and reasons for death. Do not say things in a way that may confuse the child.
    • If you tell a child that "Uncle Steve's body is in the ground," the child may wonder when Uncle Steve will come out of the ground.
    • If you tell a child that "Sally is going to sleep for a long, long time," the child may wonder when Sally will wake up.
  • Be honest. If a family member has a serious illness, for example, explain the situation in words that the child can understand. You can say, "Uncle Thomas has a bad illness that is causing his lungs to fill with germs. The germs are too strong for his body to get rid of them. We don't think he is going to live much longer."
  • Talk about the meaning of the loss. Loss is a natural part of life. You may want to use an example to help the child understand the meaning of the loss. For example, say, "Remember when you lost your stuffed bunny? You were very upset because you didn't think you would ever see him again. Daddy feels that way now because he lost his job."
  • Prepare children for expected losses. If you are planning to move, include the child in plans and preparations. If someone in the family is ill and close to death, you can say, "Grandma is sick, and we want to spend some time with her today." When death gets closer, you can say, "Grandma is very sick, and we do not think she is going to live much longer. We are going to say good-bye to her."
  • Involve children. If a loved one is dying in a hospital, ask your child whether he or she wants to visit the hospital. Ask your child whether he or she wishes to attend the funeral or memorial service. Children generally have a good sense of what they can handle. If your child wishes to attend the service, assure him or her that you (or another person) will be there to answer questions or address concerns. Some children do not want to visit a dying loved one or attend a memorial service. This is okay too. Do not force your child to do something against his or her wishes.
By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Sidney Zisook, MD - Psychiatry
Last Revised October 17, 2011

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: October 17, 2011
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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