My 7 year old says she wants to die so she can be with her father who died recently. What should I say and do?
Ever since my husband died a few months ago, it seems like I can't do anything right in my children's eyes. How can I understand this? What can I do?
My daughter is just starting 5th grade in a new school. She's cranky, whiny, uptight, and sometimes acting babyish. Plus she's talking again about her grandmother who died last year and sometimes crying. What's going on?
When my 9-year-old son gets frustrated, he says, "I'm going to kill myself!" This touches all my buttons and I don't know what to say.
You've talked about the importance of spending special time with each child each day. What could that time look like?
How do I get back on track with my children after my husband's death? I'm so overwhelmed, I don't feel like I'm connecting with them any more.
Since my wife died, we've moved and I've had to get a nanny. It seems like our world has changed completely. Is there a good way to talk with my kids about all the changes that we've experienced in the past few months?
My daughter has the opportunity to attend a children's bereavement camp this summer, but I'm really undecided about whether or not it will a good experience for her. It's been a year since my husband's (her Daddy's) death and she seems to be doing very well. I don't want to send her someplace that might re-open old wounds or make her feel sad again. What do you think?
My husband became very ill when our son was two. He died three years later and my son doesn't even like to talk about his father. He only knew him as very ill and really has no memories of his dad that I consider positive or happy. I'm sad that he won't ever know what a great guy his dad was before he got so sick. Is it better to just let this go and forget it?
There was a suicide at my daughter's school last week. The young man who died seemed to have everything going for him. How do I talk to my daughter about this death?
My husband died seven years ago, when my son was eight. We both grieved at the time of his loss and for the better part of three years thereafter. The past few years have really been fine and my son has been a happy, well-adjusted young man. Recently, however, my son is talking about his dad and asking a lot of questions about the death. He seems angry and preoccupied with the loss of his father. Should I be worried that he's been re-traumatized by the death?
How should our school inform other students and parents about the death of my child's father?
My daughter doesn't seem sad, but she's irritable and disrespectful since the loss in our family. Is she grieving? How much of this should I be putting up with?
My seven year-old seems completely unaffected by his brother's death. Is that possible?
Our baby died at birth and we feel devastated. What can we say to our child who was waiting to be a big sister?
My mother is terminally ill. How do I talk to my children about their grandma to prepare them for her death? How can I help them be with her?
Why does my child have to grieve? I just want her to be happy.
I'm dreading the first holiday season without my husband, my children's father? Is there a way to get through this?
Is it too much for a child to see someone he loves dead? At what age can a child handle that?
Is it OK to take a little guy to a funeral? My son is four and he has trouble being quiet and sitting still.
Since my husband's death, my five year-old is repeatedly asking when Daddy is coming back. What can I say to her?
I feel like the death of his mother has ruined my child's life forever. Can he ever be OK?
Does my child need to know how our loved one died?
Do I tell the school about the death of my child's loved one that happened over the summer?
Can grief affect my child's performance in school?
I'm afraid that the death in our family has been too hard for my child. We'd like to protect her from more hurt and I think the funeral will just be way too much for her. What do you think?
Is there a good way to explain cremation to a child?
My 7 year old says she wants to die so she can be with her father who died recently. What should I say and do?
  Some children have fantasies about joining their loved one in heaven by dying themselves. This is understandable. First, it takes a long time for children to grasp the concept that death is irreversible. Children of your daughter's age (and even older) still waver in their understanding that death is forever. So you daughter's fantasies of reunion with her dad may not include the realization that she herself would never be alive again once she died. (Cartoons and video games where characters regularly come back to life seem to give evidence supporting children's ideas of death as less than final.)

Second, yearning for the loved one who died is a grief response shared by many children and adults. You can empathize with your child's longing for the missing person, letting her know that she's not alone in that feeling. And at the same time, you can let her know that she can keep her Daddy in her heart while living life on earth. Be clear that this is what Daddy would want her to do. Lovingly think together about your daughter's future on this earth. Reinforce this by showing that you notice and appreciate the positive things she does, whether it is patting the dog, setting the table, learning in school, getting up after falling down, or being kind to someone else.

If belief in God and heaven is a part of your faith, you can emphasize that heaven is eternal and comes at the end of our God-given lives here; her father will be there forever and he will wait until she has had a full life. When there is a lot of emphasis on what a wonderful place heaven is, children can get the ideas that death is a desirable thing because they'll be surrounded by love, no one will ever be upset with them again, and they won't feel any more sadness, pain, fear or anger. It's more helpful to emphasize that God's love is always with her, even while she's on this earth, giving her strength and courage.

Remember that young children typically are very concrete thinkers. They may take images and metaphors as literally true. So watch out for the possibility of your child interpreting things you or someone else has said in a way that is very different from what was intended. Be ready to ask gentle questions to clarify what she's thinking when she makes statements that alarm or sadden you, or if she seems frightened. For example, a child may imagine her father literally being held in the arms of a nice man named Jesus, and feel left out. Another child may be frightened of Jesus as a "dead guy hanging on the wall" upon seeing a crucifix in a classroom.

Sometimes a child wants to join a dead parent or sibling because all of the family's attention and energy seems to be focused on the person who died. Your grief is necessary and confusion is to be expected. But you can step back for a moment and see if preoccupation with the person who died has taken over so much that a child might feel that the only way to get attention and love is to be dead, too. If that could be happening, think what you can do to shift things, even a little. You want to find a way for your child to feel that she matters as a person, too. Is there a group you can pour out your feelings to so that there's more breathing room at home? Can you find a way to carve out some time with your child when you're paying attention to her? Are there other people who can spend time with her? Are there activities she can enjoy? She may benefit from a children's bereavement group. Both of you may find counseling helpful.

Reunion fantasies are found in children who have experienced the death of a loved one from many different causes. These reunion fantasies almost always are telling us of children's yearning, pain, confusion about death and heaven, and their need to be noticed, rather than actual threats. While it can be frightening to hear your young child talk this way—and may sound particularly scary to a parent who has lost a spouse to suicide—seeing this as a time to stay calm and open up communication will bear fruit. Research done by Matthew Nock of Harvard University (recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant) on actual suicidal thoughts and behavior indicates that they are "virtually unheard-of before age 10," according to a 1/8/2013 article in the New York Times. What helps the most is to let your child know that you are truly listening to her and trying to find out what she is telling you. Then let her know you are there for her with a hug, with your attention, and your love.

back to top

Ever since my husband died a few months ago, it seems like I can't do anything right in my children's eyes. How can I understand this? What can I do?
  When your husband died, it changed the world for your children and for you. Everyone is making their way through unfamiliar territory they never wanted to be in. Navigating this new world without a map or GPS is confusing, unsettling, and energy-consuming. The pain that pops out at predictable moments (such as bedtime when Dad isn't there to kiss the children good night) and unpredictable moments (such as when your teen happens to overhear a friend talking about her Dad teaching her how to drive) can feel like it's knocking the person feeling it right off her feet. No wonder everybody is on edge!

When children feel like their world has turned upside down, it's too big a feeling to understand or express directly. So they get upset at little things. The blouse that isn't right is standing for the incomprehensible wrongness of Daddy's death. And, since children tend to feel that it's your job as the Mom to make everything right, that anger gets directed at you. Even teens, who in their most rational moments know that Mom can't undo this death or kiss away their hurt, can still react like much younger children at times—such as when they feel stressed and sad. Teens also can ask a lot of big questions about why this all happened, getting angry when, of course, you don't have all the answers. While they may be able to intellectually grasp the medical issues that led to his life ending, the "big picture" or philosophical questions about why death happens to someone we love are much more difficult for anyone to comprehend. Teens (and younger children, too) want the world to make sense and when it doesn't, they often take out their upset on those around them, particularly the surviving parent.

Another issue is that each family member grieves in his or her own way at his or her own rhythm. So one person is ready to talk when another wants to shut it out of his mind and just focus on the homework he needs to get done. One person needs to cry at the same time as another is just savoring a rare moment of joy because she saw a beautiful flower. Each can then feel irritated that the other is out of sync with the way he or she is dealing with the pain right now.

And one pitfall for families is that children often feel that they are "losing" the surviving parent just when they need her the most. The surviving parent understandably is preoccupied, exhausted, and on an emotional roller coaster. If the death was sudden, she may be in a kind of shock. If it was slow, she may be feeling drained and numb. So the parent isn't the steady, available Mom they are used to having around and relying on. Or the Mom they've been aching to have back ever since Dad got really ill, if death came slowly. Not surprisingly, the children feel irritable and critical. Which puts Mom on edge even more.

What to do? The first thing is to recognize that this is all normal after the death of a loved family member. Next is to recognize that everybody is hurting and you're all in it together. You can say that out loud. "I know the world doesn't seem right since Dad died. We all hurt so much and we all feel so confused, upset, and tired." Be clear that no one is to blame for Dad's death. Explain to your children that death happens when the body stops working—thoughts don't make that happen and wishes can't undo death.

Keep your focus on the big picture; you all are using a lot of energy learning to find your way around this strange new world that doesn't have Dad but does have a lot of sadness, confusion, and anger. You can't bring Dad back and you can't make all the pain go away, but you can love them and do the best you can to be their Mom. Don't get caught up in trying to make all the little things the children are complaining about just right. It's fine to fix what's easily fixed, but don't get hung up on trying to make everything right. If you solve one little thing, there will always be another little thing for your children to be bothered by because the real point is that Dad's death makes the world feel strange and different and wrong. Then try to remember that most of the time it really isn't about you and what you have or haven't done; it's about the grief and upset they are feeling about the death.

You can say that everyone in the family needs to treat everyone else with respect. "We hear each other better when don't put each other down or make each other feel bad." Give examples of what that means: The child who wants to study can say, "Let's talk another time. I just need to do my homework now." You can model respect yourself and also model apologizing when you know you've slipped up. And when a child talks disrespectfully, you can say in a calm, friendly voice, "Try that again, remembering that in this family we all treat each other with respect." Or, "Let's start over. Come in again and talk to me in a pleasant voice so I can really listen to you." Your own pleasant tone of voice as you make this request leads by example.

Sleeping, exercising, and eating right help everyone. We all control our emotional reactions better when we've taken care of our bodies. Try to carve out some one-on-one time with each child that can be counted on. Knowing they will have 15-20 minutes each day to connect with their surviving parent goes a long way to keep children (including teens) from feeling alone, alienated, and irritable. And having other outlets beyond the family, both people to talk to and activities that we enjoy, helps adults and children be more able to manage at home. Remembering that healing is a long process, with lots of bumps along the way, helps, too.

back to top

My daughter is just starting 5th grade in a new school. She's cranky, whiny, uptight, and sometimes acting babyish. Plus she's talking again about her grandmother who died last year and sometimes crying. What's going on?
  Starting a new school year, especially (but not only) at a new school, can be an enormous drain on children's energy.  Children have to get used to new teachers, new classmates, new schedules, new rules, new expectations, and new roles within their schools  (the difference between being in the oldest grade at their old school and the youngest at their new school, for example).  They're wondering what others will think of them and if they'll find a place for themselves.  All of that—and they're facing new academic demands.  You can begin to get an idea of what they are facing if you think about the difference between driving around your hometown with an old friend versus driving into a unfamiliar city with a carload of strangers and no GPS, only a sketchy hand-drawn map.

So your daughter is using every bit of energy she's got to cope with the challenging situation of starting 5th grade.  Now let's add the realization that every new step involves a loss.  She's losing summer.  She's losing her old, familiar school where she knew her way around the hallways, the people, and the routine.  She's losing at least some of the people who were important to her.  (This is true to a lesser extent even for children who are simply moving to a new grade in their same school.)  Coping with these losses drains energy as well.  And these new losses, even though they are expectable, can trigger her grief over old losses.  So when she has pangs about losing her 4th grade teacher who knew her well, her feelings about losing her beloved grandmother get stirred up.   And then the loss of the teacher feels bigger because it is added to her other loss.  So it's not surprising that she isn't acting like her most mature self right now.  She's coping with a little too much to keep herself under as good control as she ordinarily is capable of—and will be capable of again once she isn't so overloaded.

You can help your daughter by letting her know that you understand she has a lot on her plate right now.  Normalize the uptick in anxiety felt by students who are entering a new school; it will take a little while to sort it all out, but then it will get easier.  You can help by asking in an interested way about her new schedule, thereby helping her get it in mind.  Then you can ask about the different teachers--what they seem to care about, whether there are new rules, how they teach. Then about who is in her classes and what she may have in common with them.  Convey your interest, but keep from prying and insisting on knowing every detail.  All of these conversations help her to know she's not alone in figuring out this new world and help her feel like she is gaining some mastery over her new situation. 

If she understands that we all have only a limited amount of energy to think, learn, remember, and make decisions, she'll be more able to work together with you on the next part: Setting up a routine for homework, meals, and sleep (as well as any after school activities) so that she is renewing her energy each day.

Let her know that grieving and controlling our emotions takes energy, too.  So take time to talk about her losses with her---actually to give her a chance to talk to you about them.  Take care to separate them so they don't all get mixed up together in an overwhelming clump.  It's fine to notice she misses her old school or her old teacher.  The sharp pain at first is likely to move to a capacity to think about what's the same and what's different at the two schools.  Eventually, she can move into a pleasant nostalgia.  At different moments, let there be conversations about Grandma. There can be reminiscences about things she and your daughter did together, times to listen to her favorite songs, or to look at old pictures, or whatever else has meaning to your daughter.  Let her laugh or cry if she wants to.  If a little ritual, such as kissing a picture, saying a prayer, or touching a gift from Grandma helps, that's fine, too.  You're helping her sort through and manage her grief over her losses so that she has energy for learning, getting along with friends, regulating her emotions, and growing up.

back to top

When my 9-year-old son gets frustrated, he says, "I'm going to kill myself!" This touches all my buttons and I don't know what to say.
  It can feel scary when your child says he wants to kill himself.  However, it works best to see this as a start of an important conversation.  (You can begin with this orientation even if your child’s loved one died from suicide.)

Your son is trying to communicate something to you, but at this point it isn’t clear what that is.  Most often, a child is simply using words he knows are powerful and attention-getting in order to underline his level of distress rather than to convey actual suicidal intent.  Usually, children don’t mean it literally any more than they mean it literally when they tell their mothers, “You’re a mean witch.  I hate you!”  You want to take your son’s distress seriously, but not to jump to conclusions about what his words mean.  You don’t want to convey a sense of panic, so take a step back and take some deep breaths.  Then check it out with him. You’re not assuming anything, you’re not accusing him of anything; you’re just tuning in to him and finding out what he’s trying to let you know.

You can start by saying in a calm voice,  “I can see you’re upset.  And you’re trying to tell me something.  Help me understand what’s going on.”  As the conversation goes on, you can ask in a gentle voice, “I heard you saying you want to kill yourself.  What did you mean by that?”  You may want a specific follow-up question, “Are you really thinking of hurting yourself?”  If he does say that he really is thinking about hurting or killing himself, if he has made a suicide attempt in the past, if he is seriously depressed*, is using drugs or alcohol, then you want to take him promptly for an evaluation by a mental health professional skilled in evaluating youngsters for suicidal risk.  (These “red flags” are more commonly seen in adolescents than in younger children, but it’s good to be aware of them.)  Even if the professional doesn’t see imminent risk, he or she may recommend treatment to help your youngster deal with his distress.

It’s likely, though, that your child will say, “I didn’t mean I really want to kill myself.  I just get so frustrated.”   Or, maybe, “…I miss Daddy so much.”  Or “ Our life sucks now.  I hate it.”  Then you can say you understand that things have been really hard for your child and let him know you want to know more about how he is feeling.  Compliment him when he’s able to express what he’s actually feeling, the more precisely the better, even if those feelings are painful or difficult, even if they involve you.  Let him know that it’s so much more helpful when he uses words that really describe what’s going on inside him because then you and he can figure out what to do to help make things better.  You can ask directly, “How can I help?”  He may not know, but he’ll appreciate the concern, and you’ve set the tone of problem-solving.

And there are things you can do.  First, you can let him know that you’re all in this together, and you care about his hurt.  It won’t always hurt this much.  If your son is distracted and preoccupied after the death of his loved one and this is affecting his ability to do his schoolwork, talk to his teacher to see if he can get some extra help and perhaps some modification of his assignments for a while.  If he’s been feeling cut off from you because you’ve been so stunned and sad, try making some time each day when the two of you can connect one on one.  You can plan together what fun, fulfilling, or gratifying things he can do (or the family can do together) that make life seem less bleak.  Take a look at our book, 10 Steps for Parenting Your Grieving Children for ideas about helping him with his anger, if that seems to be a major issue.  If he has thoughts about re-uniting with Daddy, let him know that you and Daddy both always wanted your son to grow up and become a man, only to die at a ripe old age after a full life. And you know he can have that life.  Choosing death is not a good solution.  (If Daddy died by suicide, let him know that Daddy’s brain was sick when he made his body stop working.)  If your child is feeling isolated or just needs a safe place to express and explore his feelings, you can see if there is a children’s bereavement group he can participate in where other children are also grappling with loss.  (Check with your local hospice; http://rainbows.org; or on dougy.com to see what’s available near you.) If a group isn’t available or doesn’t seem to be enough for your son, individual therapy can also be helpful for children who have a lot of feelings to sort out or who seem to be becoming depressed.

So, what do you do if your child was saying “I want to kill myself” as a way of letting you know that he was feeling bad, but didn’t mean that he actually wanted to kill himself?  You don’t punish him for his words, you don’t yell at him, and you don’t panic.  Instead, you let him know that there are better ways to communicate what he is really feeling.  Our words are powerful and we want to say what we mean.  He can practice saying what he actually is feeling and you will respect that.  And you’ll do the best you can to help him.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
*Sadness, irritability, less interest or pleasure in activities, trouble concentrating, and fatigue, are symptoms of depression that are common in normal grief.  If these symptoms seem to get stronger over time and start to “take over,” particularly if they are accompanied by recurrent thoughts of death or suicide, by feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt, marked change in activity level, or ongoing sleep problems or eating problems, it’s a good idea to have your child evaluated for the possibility of depression.

back to top

You've talked about the importance of spending special time with each child each day. What could that time look like?
  The time you spend truly being present with each of your children is like money in the bank that will yield dividends for that child, for your relationship, for your sense of competence and satisfaction as a parent, and for healing after loss. Yet each of these "special times" can in itself seem quite ordinary. What are we talking about?

After a major loss, children and adults can feel like they are in shock, disconnected from others, alone in a world that has turned upside down. The parent or parents are understandably preoccupied, in a fog or grief at some times, at other times swept away by strong feelings. This can leave children feeling adrift, almost invisible, at a time when they most need to feel connected and cared for. Spending one-on-one time with each child each day can be an important part of the healing process for you both.

The key feature of this dedicated time for each child is that you give her your undivided attention. If she can count on 20 minutes a day when you will be tuned into her alone, without the distractions of your smart phone or your to-do list, she will know that she really matters to you, even though you can't be available at all times of the day. For these minutes, you set aside your other concerns and focus on hearing her, appreciating her, responding to her.

For little children, this time is often spent sitting on the floor playing together with blocks, cars, dolls, Legos, or stuffed animals. Take your cues from your child, gradually joining his game. It's fun pushing cars along the floor, building a garage of blocks for them. Of course, you set some basic rules about not doing anything that will hurt any person or damage anything, but within those boundaries, feel free to let cars crash or block buildings topple. When he has control over events that change the landscape in his play, he's dealing with his feeling that his world has changed. If he wants to play out a scenario you don't feel comfortable with, you can gently shape less adaptive behavior into more adaptive behavior by proposing alternatives in the play.

Small children and elementary aged children enjoy variants of hide-and-seek games that involve loss and recovery. You can play that you hide and she finds you or vice versa. You take turns hiding a teddy bear or doll. The item can be smaller with older children. You can give cues of "warmer" or "colder" as the child moves closer or further away from the object. You can put on a blindfold and have the child tell you how to move to find the object, then blindfold him and direct him to the object. You're working together on healing without ever talking about it explicitly.

Many children enjoy drawing. This can be a wonderful quiet, connecting time. You can simply watch your child draw, commenting on specific things about the picture. (Noticing how carefully he drew the dog's tail or the way she put all the colors in the rainbow in order makes for a much more meaningful comment than a vague, "Oh, that's great.") Then you can put the picture up on the refrigerator. Or you can take out some markers yourself and suggest you do a copying game. You will try to draw exactly what she draws. This requires you to pay very close attention to what she is doing—and she knows it. Most children are thrilled to have their actions taken seriously in this way. It's the opposite of feeling invisible, the way many bereaved children often do. Another way of connecting is to have one of you start a picture by putting the beginning of a shape on the paper, then giving the other a turn to add to it, then having it go back to you, and so forth until you both agree it's a finished drawing. The two of you are creating something together, just as you're creating a new, changed life together. Other kinds of art, woodworking, sewing, building, or making, constructing projects that your child enjoys and you can manage to stay with, are also wonderful ways of being together and often lead to some creation you can both point to after you've finished. (Doing manicures together counts, too.)

A bonus is that drawing and building activities often lead to conversation time. Your child may tell you about his day with its worries and its successes. You may have a chance to draw attention to the ways he's been resilient and to problem solve around problems before they get big. She may share things she's learned in school. Since school is a central feature of her life, it's wonderful if she talks to you about what she's added to her knowledge. It may happen that your child chooses this time to talk about his loved one who died, about questions or concerns about the death, about the changes in your family. You make it possible to have these conversations when he's ready for them and needs them by being open when they happen but not insisting your child talk when the time isn't ripe for him.

For many children, active time with you may be important—shooting baskets, playing catch, walking the dog together, riding bicycles. These shared experiences, getting you out and moving your bodies, can also be healing. As you probably know, exercise is an important way to counteract depression, so you get the double benefit of exercise plus togetherness. If possible, see if there's a little bit of other time you can add that gives you a chance to converse with your child and hear her thoughts and concerns. Don't get suckered into simply watching TV together, unless your together time comes afterward when you discuss what you both just saw and the meaning it has to you.

Bedtime stories and conversations are a wonderful way of spending meaningful time with your child. This time can be a cozy moment when you sit with your child and share the joys of the day, memories of your loved one (if she feels like it), and give reassurances. For younger children, this is likely to be an important ritual that you add to the regular playtime or drawing time you have together. For older children and teens, the touch-base before bed may be the major time they can count on to connect with you. Don't expect every conversation to be deep. Just let it be there. You are building a life-sustaining pattern of connection. It's the regular availability that counts. If you or your child are not at your best on any given occasion, there will be another one and you both know that. Gradually, you'll get through this together.

back to top

How do I get back on track with my children after my husband's death? I'm so overwhelmed, I don't feel like I'm connecting with them any more.
  After the death of your husband, you and your children are all dealing with strong, exhausting, and disorienting emotions—each with your own mixture of shock, sadness, confusion, anger, and yearning. Probably there's some anxiety mixed in, too, and maybe some feelings of guilt or shame. Plus everything is different now with your husband gone. It's completely understandable that you feel drained and have little physical or emotional energy for anything, including your children. And it's understandable that they are out of sorts, too, but that can make it even harder to relate to them. What to do?
  1. Recognize that it is perfectly normal to feel depleted. So start by knowing that you have a very limited amount of energy and you want to use it as wisely as possible.

  2. Re-establish a routine for your family. Children feel comforted when there are predictable rhythms to the day. Regular meal times, bed times and bedtime routines (such as bathing or showering, reading a "good night" story, getting a "good night" hug and kiss), and morning routines for getting up, dressed and breakfasted help children feel grounded—especially important now when their world has felt so out of control and unpredictable. You'll feel more grounded, too. And, importantly, the more things are part of a regular routine, the fewer decisions you'll have to make. It's been found that each time we have to make a decision, it takes energy. Parents and children can use up a lot of precious energy over things that don't really matter, like what to eat for breakfast, then not have that energy for something more important, like work or school or having fun together. Better to simply have a routine that breakfast on weekday mornings is cold cereal and milk.

  3. As you're re-establishing the family routines, you can talk about what can stay the same and what will need to be different. Maybe bedtime will stay the same and Friday can still be pizza night, but Daddy won't be taking them out for ice cream after the pizza any more.

  4. Then you can look at each child's day and think of a regular, predictable time when you can give that child your full attention. Depending on the child's age and interests, this can be time to play, to draw, to talk, to walk…to follow your child's lead in being together. Make your special time with your child a "no phone, no electronics" time for both of you so that you are actually connecting. Bedtime can be a precious time for talking about the good things that happened during the day, about questions and worries, about memories. The most important thing is that your child can count on this time. She knows that even if you're sad and distracted, there is some time when the two of you will connect. In fact, if she whines for attention at other times when you can't give it, you can tell her, "I can't play with you now, but we'll have our special time at 7:00 tonight."

    This may feel very difficult at first, and you may have to "fake it till you make it" for a while. That's OK. You're getting into the habit of being with your child and he's learning that he hasn't lost you, too. This time with your child usually pays off in the not-too-long run by lowering his anxiety level, helping him feel less alone and abandoned, and making him feel valued. Eventually, you'll want to have at least 20 minutes with each child, but start with shorter amounts of time if you can't pull off truly being with him that long.

    While your child sometimes may want to use this time with you to talk about Daddy, other times she may choose to talk about other things. As long as you're open to either possibility, you're giving her what she needs. Her Daddy's death is a huge event in her life, but it's not the only event. You want her to know that her new tooth or her new ability to do a cartwheel matters to you, too. You care that she's growing and learning new things.

  5. Remember that you don't have to be the only person who fills your children's needs. Now is the time to let other caring adults reach out to them. Encourage family members, parents of their friends, your friends, neighbors, coaches, camp counselors, teachers, members of your religious congregation, etc., to be involved with your children. People may be shy about reaching out to you because they don't know what to say, but you can reach out to them on behalf of your child. Let them know you'd welcome an invitation to take your daughter to the pool or your son to go for pizza. Many children and teens benefit from taking part in bereavement groups for youngsters their age. Check with your local hospice; http://rainbows.org; or on dougy.com to see what's available near you.

  6. Important! Your own healing and your own sense of connection to other adults are central. By taking care of yourself, you are making an important step in helping you be the parent you want to be. You need and deserve to have time with adults who care about you, whether they are friends, family, support groups (in person or online), counselors, or people from your church, synagogue or mosque. You're helping your children when you find resources apart from them to release and work through your strong, complicated feelings. Doing yoga, meditation, listening to music, getting outside, or whatever helps you feel calmer and more relaxed is a good use of your time. Get rest and sleep, but know that staying in bed all day will make you feel worse. Pace yourself and set your priorities. During this time of reduced energy, you probably will have to let some things slide. Maybe the house won't be as clean. Maybe the meals will be boring. Maybe the weeds will grow. You'll probably want to take full advantage of whatever leave or reduced workload is possible at your job. That's all OK. The most important thing is taking care of yourself and being there for your children.
For a more detailed version of these comments, please see http://www.allianceofhope.org/blog_/2012/07/how-do-i-get-back-on-track-with-my-children.html

back to top

Since my wife died, we've moved and I've had to get a nanny. It seems like our world has changed completely. Is there a good way to talk with my kids about all the changes that we've experienced in the past few months?
  How we cope with change and how we help our children to do so is important. The first thing is to acknowledge change. No matter how much we work to keep our lives and our children's lives secure and the same, loss makes "the same" almost impossible. After someone we love dies, we are different on the inside, as well — in how we feel and respond and react. While it's good to be calm and consistent in what we say and do, occasionally we just do not manage to do that. It's OK that we are not always right or fair. Thinking that we can be perfect for our children does not work. It is more important to show our children that we try and that we love them and want the best for them. It helps when we can talk with our children, take responsibility, and accept our own and others' mistakes.

Sometimes children won't talk about the changes that are troubling to them because it makes them feel that they're adding to our burdens and concerns. It's important to let them know that we understand that things are different and some things are not as good since the important person died. We know that our children are sad or angry or frustrated sometimes. As it is with most issues for your grieving family, communication is better than silence when coping with change.

Remember to talk with the kids about the things that have stayed the same, the things that they can rely on. "We still visit Grandma and Grandpa on Sunday." "You still take dance lessons on Friday night." "We still all like pizza." "I will always love and take care of you."

The wise ones have said that, "Change is the only constant," and it's true. But when difficult change happens, it helps to remember that positive change can happen too. It can be useful to find something that's positive to notice and comment on, even when many things are difficult. Every day our children are growing and learning. Every day, we are getting closer to healing and hope. Every day is another opportunity to realize how precious life is.

back to top

My daughter has the opportunity to attend a children's bereavement camp this summer, but I'm really undecided about whether or not it will a good experience for her. It's been a year since my husband's (her Daddy's) death and she seems to be doing very well. I don't want to send her someplace that might re-open old wounds or make her feel sad again. What do you think?
  It's good that your daughter is thriving and doing well. Most children are resilient and forward-moving. When given the chance to work through their loss, children who have been well-supported during their grief experience seem to do very well as time goes on. Bereavement camp can add to that support in a comfortable and comforting way.

Finding out how your daughter might feel about attending a grief support camp would be one factor in making a decision. Make time to talk with someone about the camp experience they're offering and ask about schedules, care arrangements, staff-to-participant ratio, and activities – including any grief-related activities that your daughter would be participating in. Grief camps are designed to be safe, supportive, positive places where children can share their memories, process their grief (at whatever level of intensity they're feeling it), receive support from staff and fellow campers, and acknowledge and celebrate their own strength and resilience. Grief camp activities tap into a child's creativity and playfulness, while being respectful of the importance of their experience. In addition, grief camps provide a lot of activities – sports, crafts, hiking, swimming – that are a great outlet for expending emotional energy and having fun.

If you're picturing a bunch of sad kids in the woods, please know that most kids love the grief camp experience and feel supported by participating in it. The camaraderie and acceptance that children feel when surrounded by others who share the life-changing experience of significant loss is inclusive and affirming. And don't forget the fun!

back to top

My husband became very ill when our son was two. He died three years later and my son doesn't even like to talk about his father. He only knew him as very ill and really has no memories of his dad that I consider positive or happy. I'm sad that he won't ever know what a great guy his dad was before he got so sick. Is it better to just let this go and forget it?
  Some children are too young (or weren't even around) to have personal memories of their important person who died. Other children, like your son, may have missed the best years of a parent's life. Sharing stories about their parent, helps them to develop a sense of connection, understanding better whose child they are. If little children insert themselves into the story, taking on a role that may be mostly imagination, even better. It's easier to hold on to something that you feel you're a part of.

The more words, images, feelings, and actions we can connect to a story, the more memorable it is. Maybe you can tell your son about Daddy's big bear hugs when he was little and let him feel just how big or strong the hug was. Sometimes, physically re-experiencing something like a hug may even trigger a body memory of what that hug felt like. Similarly, if there are songs Daddy used to sing or music he liked to play, hearing them again at a time your son feels warmly connected to someone he loves (like you or a grandparent) can nurture positive, unspoken memories of Daddy. Getting your son involved in creating his own story of his dad might be helpful. Using pictures, drawing, making collages, or even making an "If" Board ("Things we could do together if Dad was here with me") can help your son to be an active participant in creating his own story, so he is not just getting the information from others. Remember that most children of your son's age have fairly short attention spans, so keep these activities short and fun. That way, remembering Daddy won't feel like a burden to your child.

Your son has a long time to come to term with his dad's life and death. Chances are that he'll re-visit this as time goes on, so don't feel like he has to be told everything now. Some stories may become more important and relevant to him as he grows.

back to top

There was a suicide at my daughter's school last week. The young man who died seemed to have everything going for him. How do I talk to my daughter about this death?
  If your daughter is open to talking about the death of her schoolmate, listen carefully to her feelings about the loss and let her know that you're hearing what she has to say. Ask what she believes happened to her friend and be prepared to listen and respond, without judgment or shock. Accept whatever feelings she expresses—and she may have a whole range of them. That's to be expected.

Most suicides are the result of some form of depressive illness (including bipolar illness). If your daughter brings up depression, that gives you an opening for discussion. If not you may want to ask, "Do you think your friend could have been having difficulties with depression?" Let your daughter know that depression can affect a person's thought process, making him believe that what's wrong, troublesome, or frightening to them will never get better. Talk about how depressed thinking can lead a person to make a mistake. Do not say that the person who died was wrong or weak or selfish. While we are always respectful and kind in how we talk about the person who died, we don't want to romanticize suicide. One reason we're all so sad is that her friend didn't see the alternatives, such as getting help, that would have helped him get through this period of deep depression—and now he doesn't have the chance to try different strategies that might have worked for him.

We started by assuming that your daughter was willing to talk about the death of her schoolmate and we know that some teens may be resistant to talking with parents about this kind of loss. If your child is reluctant, it's still a good idea to check in with her about what's happened. The conversations may be relatively short and may occur over a period of time, but it's important to have them. It may help to encourage her to write about her thoughts and feelings.

You'll also want to find out if there are support services available at school (or in your community) and whether or not your child is accessing help. Some children and adolescents are more willing to talk with peer acceptance and support.

back to top

My husband died seven years ago, when my son was eight. We both grieved at the time of his loss and for the better part of three years thereafter. The past few years have really been fine and my son has been a happy, well-adjusted young man. Recently, however, my son is talking about his dad and asking a lot of questions about the death. He seems angry and preoccupied with the loss of his father. Should I be worried that he's been re-traumatized by the death?
  We can feel concerned when our children hit a stumbling block, when they're unhappy and frustrated. It sounds as though your son is re-grieving the death of his father and that can be a painful process. It's also a normal and unavoidable part of his growing up. He isn't eight anymore and he's maturing in many ways, including his understanding of the whole experience of his father having died when he was young. This means he has to re-work his feelings and thoughts about his dad's life and death and about what it all means to him now as he moves into young manhood. He's able to think in new ways about the impact it has had on his life and where he wants to go from here. Your son now has the capacity to put his own pain and his own resilience into a much more complex understanding of the world than he could as a child. Many adolescents and young adults have "big picture" questions about the meaning of life and death that they didn't-and couldn't--grapple with when they were younger. In addition, as your son works to establish his own identity as a young adult, it's very appropriate for him to want a deeper understanding of who his father was and what they meant to each other. (This need happens for children who have lost their parent of the opposite sex, too.) This process can feel unsettling at the time, but it can lead to solid, important growth.

Your son certainly needs your support and the opportunity to talk and think this through. If your son sees that you are open to discussing whatever is on his mind, he's less likely to feel isolated or that there is something wrong with him. Sometimes taking time to write reflections and hopes (15 minutes a day on several different days) can be a way for people who are re-grieving to make this a productive process. You can encourage your son to try this. It may be helpful to seek out a mentor for him - a male relative, coach, clergy person, or counselor. Re-grieving doesn't mean a child has been re-traumatized: it's a normal and necessary passage in grieving and growing.

back to top

How should our school inform other students and parents about the death of my child's father?
  Although it may feel burdensome at the time, it can help your family to have some control or ownership of how the very personal story of the death is shared with others. The goal is to share information in a way that allows others parents, children, and school personnel – to be supportive and helpful to your children, and to you as well.

The death should be explained clearly and consistently, presented to the children in a way that is age-appropriate. In many schools, this will be done in the classroom by the classroom teacher, guidance staff, or principal. It isn't a good idea to use the public address system or to convene an assembly to share this information. It helps that students have the opportunity to ask questions and react to the death at the time, without the grieving classmate in the room or in the school.

Sharing with the students about how to be a good friend and involving them in a project of sending their warm thoughts and condolences helps the children to engage with their classmate, rather than withdrawing in fear or discomfort. The school should communicate to the parents what their children have been told so that consistency is maintained and also so that parents can respond to their children's questions and concerns.

If it feels right to you, information on the wake, funeral or memorial service can be communicated by the school. Although the idea of whole school attending may seem daunting, the presence of classmates and teachers is the first step in the process of helping others find ways to engage with and support your children.

back to top

My daughter doesn't seem sad, but she's irritable and disrespectful since the loss in our family. Is she grieving? How much of this should I be putting up with?
  While we often associate grief with sadness, a lot of other feelings accompany grief – frustration, anger, guilt, restlessness, etc. Although being sullen and disrespectful is often a part of adolescence, if your daughter seems very different since the death, it's likely that her reactions are associated with her grief. You can let her know that you understand and accept that she's angry without approving of her behavior. Make it clear that her feelings are understandable and can be shared and talked about, but that it's important for everyone in the family to treat each other respectfully. To get through the tough times, everyone must be civil and behavior that is hurtful to others needs to stop.

For more information on dealing with this issue, please see pages 34 – 35 in 10 Steps for Parenting Your Grieving Children.

back to top

My seven year-old seems completely unaffected by his brother's death. Is that possible?
  While it may be disconcerting to you as a parent that your surviving child appears untouched or unchanged by his brother's death, there may be understandable reasons that he doesn't show grief in the way you might expect.

It's possible that he's distancing himself from the experience of loss and grief. One way that children manage experiences that are frightening to them (and the death of a contemporary, particularly a sibling, is scary) is to refuse to pay attention to it.

Sometimes children don't want to add to their parents' worries and sadness, so they keep their own sad or anxious feelings hidden away. And sometimes children hide feelings that they think their parents would find unacceptable – like being angry or envious of all the attention that an ill sibling received or simply all the attention that goes towards a child who has died. It can really helpful to accept that whatever your child is feeling right now is OK. He's more likely to share his emotions, thoughts, and concerns if he feels safe and accepted.

Over time, you may come to see that your child is grieving his brother's death. Children tend to grieve in short bursts of feelings that are sometimes easy to miss, but they also re-grieve loss throughout their lives and their deepest responses may show up weeks, months, or years later.

back to top

Our baby died at birth and we feel devastated. What can we say to our child who was waiting to be a big sister?
  Preparing for a new baby is an exciting and happy time for a family, including the soon-to-be big brothers and sisters. The death of a baby is heart-wrenching for parents, confusing and disappointing for the surviving siblings. It's important to help your daughter understand what happened to the baby in a way that is age-appropriate and specific, helping to allay her concerns about what could happen to her. For example: "The baby's heart was not beating right and then his body stopped working and he died. Your heart is strong and works just fine. Let's put our hands on your chest and feel it beating."

Your daughter may be experiencing disappointment and sadness, but generally it won't be the same for her as it is for you. She'll feel your grief and it helps to let her know that you are sad, but you can still take care of her. It's also good to tell her that you won't be this sad forever, although you will always love and remember the baby. Let your daughter know that you are so happy to have her and to be her parents, even when you seem sad.

back to top

My mother is terminally ill. How do I talk to my children about their grandma to prepare them for her death? How can I help them be with her?
  This is a difficult experience to be going through and one that can seem very difficult to share with your children. Chances are that your kids know a lot about what's going on, even if they don't understand all of it. A good first step for talking with children about difficult news is to ask them what they've seen or noticed – what's different about Grandma? This allows them to become part of the conversation and empowers them to say what they know. Many children, younger than we may expect, know something about life and death from TV and movies. Some of what they think they understand might also be inaccurate and you can help to clarify any misperceptions. Ask if they know what happens when people become very sick. Sometimes people may get better, but sometimes a person's body stops working and she dies.

At this point it's useful to have some sense of the timetable. While we can't be exact in knowing how long a person will live, a conversation that we have with children 3 or 6 months before a death can be different than the conversation we have a week or two before. An early conversation about what may happen when people get sick can be followed by a later conversation that lets children know that Grandma isn't getting better and will die.

It's important for a child to maintain their relationship with the dying person. Children cope best when they feel included and involved – when they can do things to help. Your children can read to Grandma or watch TV with her, get her water or an extra blanket, comb her hair or hold hands with her. The activities should be age-appropriate and comfortable for the child, as well as appropriate for the mental and physical state of the loved one. (For ideas about how a child can be included at the bedside at the time of death, please see pages 41- 42 in 10 Steps for Grieving Children.)

back to top

Why does my child have to grieve? I just want her to be happy.
  We all want our children to be happy but they can't be happy all the time. Sometimes life deals them a hard blow. We can help our children to become more resilient by acknowledging their pain and supporting them through it. Grief is a natural response to significant loss and is the process by which we integrate and come to terms with it – no matter how old we are. When we help our children through their grief, the experience becomes part of who they are in a way that allows them to feel whole and capable of navigating life's tough passages. It also creates a space for a child to keep warm and nurturing memories of the important person who has died. It's how we heal.

back to top

I'm dreading the first holiday season without my husband, my children's father? Is there a way to get through this?
  There are ways to get through the holidays, but no way to make them exactly the same as they were before. The expectation that they can be just like they used to be is the first thing to let go of if you're going to have holidays that are manageable. In the early days, the most important message for a grieving family is people first. Turkeys, place cards, Martha Stewart table decorations, lights, gifts, customary charitable giving, Secret Santa grab bags, buying, wrapping, baking, and all the rest are important — but not as important as you and the children. So, find out what they need (and don't be afraid to discuss what is most important about the holidays, and what's just the "icing" for them), pay attention to what you need, and then do what you have the heart, energy, and resources to do. Give yourself permission to do things differently, to "make do" a little bit, to be "good enough" this year. There will be other holidays and better times. Finally, try to stay flexible about what happens. People, big and little, can get tired, sad, overwhelmed, over-sugared, and out of sorts. Sometimes there is nothing like a good cry, a big hug, an early bedtime, or some peace and quiet. If you miss something this year, there's always next year!

back to top

Is it too much for a child to see someone he loves dead? At what age can a child handle that?
  Most children need to experience something to really understand it. That being said, there are ways to prepare a child of any age to encounter someone they love who has died. It's important to tell the child how the person is different – that he or she isn't breathing anymore, that he or she can't hear them or speak to them, that the person doesn't need to eat or go to the bathroom. Even older children who understand all this need to know that the person will look different, that he or she will be wearing make-up or feel cold to the touch. When they know what to expect, most kids say that the experience was OK. Someone, however, needs to be prepared and willing to calmly answer questions that children might have about what they're seeing or experiencing throughout the viewing, the wake, or the funeral.

back to top

Is it OK to take a little guy to a funeral? My son is four and he has trouble being quiet and sitting still.
  At four, your son probably needs more activity than most funerals or memorial services routinely provide. But there are ways to help him participate and for you to have the chance to do the important things you have to do to say goodbye to the person who's died. Ask someone who is less affected by the death (perhaps even a babysitter) to be available for your child. The person can be there to answer your child's questions and keep track of him. Provide the person with a toy, game, or drawing materials that are small and unobtrusive to occupy some time. If necessary, the person can give the child a break by taking him out of the chapel or church and occupying him someplace else - letting him make a little noise or stretch his busy little legs.

back to top

Since my husband's death, my five year-old is repeatedly asking when Daddy is coming back. What can I say to her?
  It can be unsettling when a little one asks for the person who has died – and many do so repeatedly. It's best to keep saying that Daddy's body stopped working, that he died, and that means he can't be here with us anymore. Instead of changing the story in the hope that she will understand it better, keep it simple and repeat the story, using the same words. If you're consistent, she'll begin to understand that the story doesn't change and it will seem more familiar. In time, she'll also begin to understand that Daddy can't come back.

back to top

I feel like the death of his mother has ruined my child's life forever. Can he ever be OK?
  The loss of a parent certainly affects a child's life, but that's not the same as "ruining" it. Grief is a difficult passage at any age, but children are resilient and able to incorporate tough experiences with natural hopefulness and a tendency towards growth. A child may always feel in touch with missing a parent who has died, but the process of surviving and thriving through loss can lead to a child growing into a person who is caring, compassionate, and has confidence in his or her own ability to navigate difficult experiences. It's a long road for bereaved children, but it doesn't have to be so lonely or treacherous if we can stay aware, in touch, and connected to them.

back to top

Does my child need to know how our loved one died?
 

The shortest answer is "yes." Whether or not we want to explain how a death happened, a child needs a story that makes sense to him or her at the age he or she is. If we don't provide the information, a child may make one up, ask other kids for explanations, attempt to find out by listening in on whispered and private conversations, or combine all these elements, coming up with a complicated and inaccurate story. The idea that a person was here one moment and dead the next, with no understandable explanation, is frightening in itself and will likely cause more anxiety for the child than the actual explanation would have. A child needs a clear, age-appropriate story to make sense of the death and to begin the grief process – which is the only way to resolve and heal loss.

back to top

Do I tell the school about the death of my child's loved one that happened over the summer?
  It can be very helpful to school personnel to know that your child has experienced a significant loss and it can help your child to have others know. It's important that the classroom teacher is informed and that you establish a dialogue with her or him about your child's performance, behavior, mood, and social interactions – particularly if any of these become very different from the way they were before the loss. If a teacher is aware, she or he can be better attuned to your child's needs and better able to advocate for him.

back to top

Can grief affect my child's performance in school?
  It certainly affects some children's academic performance, but that's not universal. Grief in itself can cause changes in a child's ability to concentrate and maintain focus. In addition, changes in diet, routine, schedules, and sleep patterns that accompany a death in the family can also take a toll.

Re-establishing a workable routine and schedule can help. Providing time for addressing the hard feelings associated with grief will be helpful as well.

back to top

I'm afraid that the death in our family has been too hard for my child. We'd like to protect her from more hurt and I think the funeral will just be way too much for her. What do you think?
  Having a chance to be part of a rite of farewell is comforting to most children. Being left behind as everyone else goes off to a funeral or memorial service can seem very isolating and can actually leave a child hurting more. At the service, children and their family are linked to others in the community who loved their loved one. They have a meaningful ritual to say good-bye, helping the death to seem real providing a before and after reference point. It's an important part of beginning the grief process, which is, in fact, a necessary step towards healing and resolution.

back to top

Is there a good way to explain cremation to a child?
  Explaining cremation can be a challenge, but it can be done in a way that works for a child. The first step is to make sure that the child you're explaining it to understands that death is the end of all life in the body – that the person's body does not think or feel or breathe, that the person's life in the body has ended and that the body left behind when someone dies is like a fallen leaf or a broken twig. The next thing is to explain that the body of the loved one (not the loved one) will be cremated, using the words "Grandma's body", not "Grandma". Explain that the remains of the body will be returned in a container called an urn and that the urn is not very big. From this point, provide information based on the questions the child will ask. Ask the child if he or she has any questions. If the child asks how the body gets smaller or what it's like, say, "Cremation is a process that makes the body kind of like sand." If the child asks how, say, "The process uses heat." If the child asks, "Is it fire?", answer by telling them again that the body is no longer alive and that it is just left behind, like a fallen leaf. When you are sure the child understands, you can say, "Yes, the way that cremation happens is with heat or fire." The key to explaining cremation is to be lead by the child to reveal the level of detail he or she needs to understand. Using non-dramatic words to describe the process is also important. If the child seems shocked, explain that bodies are cremated every day – that we believe it is an honorable way to take care of the body after someone has died. Most children accept the idea fairly easily when they get a careful explanation.

back to top

HOME | BIO | LOOK INSIDE | FAQ | RESOURCES | CONTACT
©2017 Grieving-Children.com