Listening to a Bereaved Child

When a child loses a significant person in his/her life, the surviving adults usually rally around trying to make everything better.  Since you can’t bring the person back (which is what the child wants), it is virtually impossible to make it “better” right away.  (Grief is not the same through the eyes of a child)

At times, adults have a tendency to talk at children while trying to dispense wisdom, concern, and love. The subject of death may be danced around, with euphemisms utilized and half-truths uttered. Of course, this is done with good intentions, for adults feel a need to protect innocent young ones.
You may want to consider the idea that children can be very powerful teachers to the adults who surround them. Accordingly, it may be better to step back and really listen to what they have to say.

Try not to tell a child how to feel – instead, you can ask him/her how he/she does feel. Each child is a unique individual with feelings of his or her own, and, consequently, each child will experience grief differently. For example, one child may constantly be in tears, and another may hide his/her tears and not want to talk about his/her loss. Letting a child know that there is no right or wrong way to feel allows him/her the freedom to grieve in his or her own personal fashion.

At a time when both parent and child are grief-stricken, it is very easy for communication to falter. Consequently, each may have a hard time really hearing what the other needs.

If a young child had enough wisdom to understand his/her actions/reactions to the loss of his/her parent and the words to express his/her emotions, the following might be communicated.

Dear Daddy/Mommy,

I had a special relationship with Daddy/Mommy, and I need to grieve for all the things I will miss doing with him/her. They are different than the things you will miss about him/her. Please don’t tell me how I should feel because it may not be right and then you will make me think I’m doing something wrong.

Please tell me the truth about what happened in terms that I can understand. If you tell me Daddy/Mommy went on a trip, then I will expect him/her to come home. I am more afraid of not knowing what really happened than to face sad and difficult truths.

Please allow me to attend my father’s/mother’s funeral. I might be scared and not understand everything, but I need to physically understand where he/she is going to be.

Please keep talking to me about life and death. Be patient when I ask many questions, even when they are the same ones over and over again. I am just trying to understand all these new concepts, and I need to hear the answers more than once. Try to explain it to me in different ways until I can grasp the idea. Pictures are helpful too.

Please explain to me that Daddy/Mommy didn’t die because I was a bad boy/girl and made him/her angry sometimes. Let me know that his/her death wasn’t a punishment for me. Tell me the real cause of the death, so I don’t have to feel guilty.

Be patient with me when I say, much too often, I have a stomachache or a headache. It is just that my heart hurts so much, it makes the rest of my body feel sick too. I am not faking to get out of going to school or having to do chores. I am using all my energy learning to adjust to a new life without a father/mother that sometimes my body becomes weak. I don’t want to feel this way, and I am trying very hard to be strong.

Please know that I am looking to you for guidance. I am going to follow your lead. If you pretend everything is fine, I will too. If you stay in bed all day because you can’t face the world, I will too. If you start acting wild by drinking and staying out late, I will too. If you become mean and mad at the world, I will too.

Please be a good role model. Show me the way to recovery through hard work, facing one’s fears and problems, and finding new ways to live, love and be happy. That is the greatest gift you can give me.

Keep in mind, each child will deal with his/her grief differently and on his/her own timetable. If everything is going smoothly for the moment, don’t look for hidden troubles. It may take some time for a child to process all the ramifications of the loss of a parent. Additionally, remember that a child must reprocess all this information at each new developmental stage of life. As desirable as it may sound, you can’t hurry up and get over grief. The journey to a healthy and successful new life is a long process, and the more triumphant the adult, the better the child will fare..

Ellen Gerst is the author of A Practical Guide to Widow/erhood. Born out of Ellen’s own experiences as a young widow, A Practical Guide provides suggestions to help a griever re-adjust each aspect of his/her life without his/her loved one. Ellen has also written two books for grieving children: Let’s Get A Grip on Grief (for ages 5-8) and Let’s Get A Grasp on Grief (for ages 9-12). For more information, go to

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