It's one of the most difficult conversations
you'll ever have with your child - telling them about the loss of a
loved one, whether through death, divorce, or a change in life
circumstances. Most of the time, 'going away' is followed by
'coming back', and when someone important to your child is gone
from his or her life permanently, it can be very confusing and
upsetting. Clinical psychologist Dr Melanie Woodfield has some
advice for parents on how to talk to your children about grief and
In an attempt to shield a child from pain and heartache, many
parents shy away from discussing death, grief and loss. The old
cliché is true, however: Death is a part of life. It's inevitable
that children will experience some form of loss of a
close relationship at some point, whether that is the loss of a
grandparent, close friendship, or a pet. Being prepared to assist
children to cope with this loss is a wise move.
A friend recently told me that she and her
sons often visit the cemetery near their holiday home. The family
spend time reading headstones, noting how long people
had lived, and how they had died. The boys often pick flowers
for the graves and remove litter and weeds from the area. These
activities always prompt deep discussions about life, death,
spirituality, and loss. Far from being "spooked", the boys appear
to have a calm acceptance of the inevitability and irreversibility
Obviously, this holiday activity won't
suit everyone, particularly those with toddlers, who are more
likely to see a whole lot of perfect concrete surfaces for racing
trucks! It illustrates, however, the importance of "normalising"
loss, and preparing children in advance, even in small ways.
We're talking not only about the death of
a family member, but also of the loss associated with the end of a
relationship, or the grief associated with a
significant change in the intricacies of a relationship (such as
often occurs between parents and children when parents
The loss of a pet is one that many
children will face, as our furry friends live shorter lives than
their human counterparts. Pets serve as friends, playmates and
sources of unconditional love. The loss of a pet can bring about
confusion, sadness, and can prompt children to ask some of the big
questions in life, such as whether there is a heaven, and where
people go when they die.
Children and grief
While there are some general principles that we can apply to
understanding how children grieve, every child is different, and we
know that there are some group differences, such as how boys and
girls react to loss. In 1999, J William Worden carried out a study
looking at differences and similarities in the impact on children
losing a parent, as opposed to a sibling. He and his colleagues
compared two groups (one group had lost a parent, and the other had
lost a sibling), with 75 school-aged children in each group. They
interviewed the children four months after their loss, and again at
one and two years after the loss. Children's well-being was
assessed by a commonly used measure of emotional and behavioural
The results of this study indicated that
there were no significant differences between the two groups in the
key areas examined. But, interestingly, when the two groups were
considered by gender, differences appeared. Boys were more impacted
by the loss of a parent than by the loss of a sibling, and girls
more affected by the loss of a sibling, particularly a sister. This
study wasn't huge, but gives an interesting insight into how
children's experiences of grief and loss can be similar, but
different, according to their gender.
Ages and stages
Another factor influencing how children experience loss is their
age and developmental stage. The younger the child, the more likely
they are to be affected by the practical changes that often
accompany loss. Changes can include simple things such as an
altered routine, or an upset caregiver, as opposed to the "deeper"
Babies can be more difficult to settle,
and can pick up on subtle changes in parents' moods. Toddlers tend
to be very "present"-oriented (as opposed to future- or
past-oriented). Their response to loss is often intense, but brief.
This loss can be viewed by toddlers as reversible, not permanent -
they truly (developmentally) find it difficult to comprehend
that their loved family member or pet will not come back.
Grieving toddlers may developmentally
regress (go backwards) for a time, for example, resuming bedwetting
and/or soiling when they've been toilet trained for some time. This
is common, and usually not a cause for concern. Toddlers benefit
from frequent reassurance, repetition of basic age-appropriate
information, and consistency in routine.
When speaking with toddlers, be aware that
young children may be confused about the apparent "random" nature
of loss, and may become anxious that other family members, such as
parents, could unpredictably pass away in the near future. It's
likely to be useful to reassure them that, while some losses are
"random", mostly they accompany old age and/or illnesses, and Mum
and Dad aren't going anywhere in the near future!
Children move through developmental stages
as they age, and will process grief and loss in different ways,
according to their developmental stage. Five- to seven-year-old
children, for example, may still view their loss as reversible, and
may even take responsibility for the loss, thinking things such as
"Mum and Dad would still be together if I'd been a better girl!" or
"My rabbit died because I didn't want to clean the cage." It's only
when children reach approximately 11-12 years old developmentally
that they begin to process loss in a similar way to adults, by
understanding that their loss is permanent, and displaying
"traditional" mourning habits.
In their recent book about treating traumatic grief in children and
adolescents, Judith Cohen and her colleagues comment on typical
tasks of "normal" grief and loss in children, which include:
• Experiencing the profound pain associated with the
loss (of a loved one, pet, etc.).
• Accepting that the loss is permanent (as mentioned,
this varies according to the developmental stage of the
• Reminiscing about the lost loved one and accepting
that the loved one was a complete person - with good and bad
• Changing the nature of the relationship from "one of
interaction to one of memory".
• Including important parts of the lost loved one into
the child's own self-concept or self-identity.
• Making a commitment to forming and maintaining new
It's very difficult to describe "normal" behavioural and emotional
changes that accompany loss experiences for children. As with
adults, some children will become quiet and reflective, and others
angry and defiant. Grief can have a profound impact on even very
young children, and it should not be assumed that quiet children
are necessarily coping better than outgoing children.
Talking to children about grief and
Every year of your child's life that passes gives you another
year's experience of talking to children. But conversations about
the nutritional value of broccoli ("But it's really goooood for
you…") and the importance of toilet-training do little to prepare
parents for tackling the big topics. Unfortunately, we know that
issues like divorce, re-partnering and death are common in New
Zealand households. Even if these issues don't personally affect
you or your children, newspaper pictures, the TV, and other
children can plant seeds that can lead to you needing to tackle
some tricky topics. Here are some simple principles that can
Children need to feel emotionally (and physically)
contained. If they see that you are overwhelmed by what's happened,
they'll either talk to someone else, or not talk at all. Stay calm,
and save the "Oh my goodness!" for the debrief with another adult
later. If it's too late, and your child has already picked up that
you're horrified or upset, it's usually helpful to be honest:
"Mummy's feeling really sad about Granny dying, so that's why I'm
crying. When people die, it's normal to feel sad and to cry for a
while, then people usually feel a bit better."
If you're so distraught that you can't get
the words out, it's probably best to have another, calm, adult
alongside to talk your child through what you're feeling and what's
happening. Remember that children under five usually can't
identify many emotions - typically just the "big three" of happy,
sad and angry, so explanations need to be basic. Reminding the
child of a time when they felt a similar way might help - "Remember
when you got that new doll, but it was broken and we had to take it
back? Remember how you felt really sad? Well, Mummy is feeling sad
now, a bit like you did back then."
What to say
Unfortunately, there aren't any concrete
rules about what to say to children of a particular age. Be guided
by your child's developmental level - many two-year-olds will still
be mastering the basics of sentence construction, and, while they
generally comprehend language better than they can produce it, they
won't necessarily benefit from an extended, one-sided
With babies and young toddlers, it may be
wise to take a "watch and wait" approach, while focusing on the
basics of ensuring consistent and predictable feeding and sleep
times. Be prepared, as explained above, that your child may regress
for a time, and go back to, for example, wanting their night feed,
dummy or comfort blanket. This is normal and healthy, and is
usually an attempt by the child to seek comfort, when they don't
necessarily have the language ability to ask for it.
Three-, four- and five-year-old
children are more likely to verbally question the change that has
occurred - perhaps directly asking, "Where's Granny gone?" or
"Where's my rabbit?" Again, there isn't a perfect answer you can
provide, but age-appropriate honesty is generally a good thing.
Give the child as much information as you truthfully can.
For example, in a parental
separation situation, if your child is asking, "Will Daddy come
back to live with us?" there is little benefit in creating false
hope in your child (and delaying the inevitable) by saying "Maybe"
if that's not an option. Instead, saying, "I bet you really wish
that Daddy would come back and live with us. To be honest, I don't
think that's going to happen. You'll still see Daddy lots, though,
and Daddy and Mummy still love you just as much as we ever did" may
be more helpful. Be prepared that you may have to repeat this
information many times, as the more distressed a child is, the less
likely they are to retain key information.
Grief is normal and natural
Metaphors can really help to explain difficult topics to children
who want an explanation of what's happened. There also are some
wonderful books and stories on the subject that are written in
age-appropriate language for children, as well as some helpful
resources on the internet.
Grief is normal, and usually a natural,
healthy process. But, if your child's behavioural or emotional
changes are extreme, continue for longer than a few months, and
impact on their ability to go about the activities of everyday life
(eating, sleeping, attending kindy), consulting a professional is
Dr Melanie Woodfield is a child and adolescent clinical
psychologist in Auckland.
• Faber, A and Mazlish, E. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen
and Listen So Kids Will Talk. Collins, 1999.
• Worden, JW. Children and Grief: When a Parent Dies. New York:
Guildford Press, 1996.
• Cohen, JA, Mannarino, AP, and Deblinger,
E. Treating Trauma and Traumatic Grief in Children and Adolescents.
New York: Guildford Press, 2006.
• Worden, JW, Davies, B, and McCown, D. "Comparing parent
loss with sibling loss." Death Studies 23.1 (1999):
As seen in OHbaby!
magazine Issue 2: 2008
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