Tips for Helping Kids Cope with Loss

By: Jennifer Thew, RN, BSN, MSJ, Former National Editor at Nurse.com
Jennifer has a background in neuroscience and has a great appreciation for the work of hospice nurses.
Jennifer Thew, RN

Jennifer Thew, RN

One of my earliest memories is attending my great-grandfather’s funeral. I remember the funeral home’s gold curtains (it was the 1970s), exactly where the guest book was placed and that we sat in the front row during the memorial service. It’s not a frightening or sad memory, just a clear image in my mind.

Recently, I asked my mother how old I had been when he died. She said about 2 1/2.

Children of all ages are likely to experience loss in their lives. A friend may move away, or a pet, grandparent or parent may die. Death and loss are often difficult for adults to discuss with other adults, and when it comes to talking with kids it’s tempting to avoid the subject altogether. After all, aren’t kids too young to understand loss? Won’t talking about it upset them even more?

Actually, The Hospice Foundation of America advises parents to be open and honest with children about loss. It says by guiding children through the grieving process, adults can teach children how to cope with a loss.

Unsure of what to do or say? Here’s some guidance for parents who feel, well, at a loss, when it comes to dealing with loss.

Be honest

When my friend was 12, her mother developed breast cancer. She knew her mom was sick and undergoing treatment. But, when her mother passed away during a hospital stay, she was shocked. She thought it would be like the other admissions and her mom would come back home. She didn’t realize how sick her mom was because no adult had explained it to her.

As a registered nurse, I’ve seen this scenario more than once. Hoping to protect others from grief, family members don’t paint a realistic picture of a patient’s prognosis. Sometimes this means a family member doesn’t get to say goodbye before a patient passes and important words are left unsaid, which actually causes more grief.

If someone’s health is declining, don’t be afraid to share that with your children. It allows them to ask questions, to start getting prepared for loss and to say the things they want to say. They’ll be able to take comfort in that for the rest of their lives.

Say, ‘I don’t know’

Kids are full of questions, but adults don’t always have the answers. And that’s OK. Some parents are able to draw on spiritual beliefs to help answer the “Where do people go when they die?” question.

Still, kids have a knack for throwing out uncomfortable questions.

Instead of struggling to make up answers, be honest with your child, according to the University of New Hampshire’s Cooperative Extension’s fact sheet “Helping Children Cope With Death.

Saying “I don’t know, honey. What do you think?” can help children voice their own ideas about death and loss. You may be surprised to find they have their own ideas that they find comforting.

Cultivate outlets

Though more than a decade has passed since her father’s death, Sarah Canga-Arguelles, 28, of Crystal Lake, Ill., says she still writes him letters from time-to-time, something she started doing right before he passed.

Today, her letters continue to give him a voice, “I think, if he was here maybe this is what he’d tell me to do.” After her father passed, writing journal entries and poetry and taking up photography helped Canga-Arguelles cope. “It helped me find a voice for what I was going through,” she said.

Encouraging kids to find an outlet for their feelings, whether it’s writing, art or sports, can help them process their loss.

As a nurse, you’ve undoubtedly had to help a child cope with loss? Please use the comments box to share your tips and/or advice for others.

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