How Parents Can Help Children Cope with Grief

Whether the sorrow is related to the loss of a loved one, a pet or even a friend who is moving, here are some tips and strategies to guide them through the pain.

Katie Annarino
Grief is hard for adults, and even tougher for children.

Whether it’s the loss of a pet, a friendship or a loved one, coping with sorrow is a part of life.

Columbus native Maggie Smith touches on this in her poem “Good Bones” and poses an interesting dilemma: How do we “sell them the world” knowing full well that grief is part of it? How do we raise our kids to be OK when they aren’t?

Although every child experiences grief differently, we’ve gathered some tips and advice to help parents feel empowered as they support their children, whether it’s related to the current pandemic or not.

Start the Conversation

Before you discuss the issue with your child, it’s helpful to know what you are going to say. What are your beliefs about death? Do you want to mention heaven? Also, keep in mind how children of varying developmental stages understand loss and death.

Knowing how you are going to frame the discussion and what you want to say will help you feel more prepared and more empowered. Then you can either wait for the right moment or create it yourself using children’s literature.

“Books have the potential to provide a child with the opportunity to process his/her feelings and to talk about grief from the perspective of the character, which can feel more safe and less vulnerable to the child,” says Julie Eirich, a teacher and former principal at Wickliffe Progressive Elementary School in Upper Arlington.

Whether it’s the loss of a family member, friendship or pet, literature can act as a catalyst for important discussions. “I read ‘Cat Heaven’ one night at dinner and we just had a discussion. It opened a door,” says Melissa Burnett, a mom of three boys who recently experienced the loss of the family cat, Eddie. “I told them however they were experiencing this was OK, and they could tell me how they were feeling.”

Experts agree that when parents normalize their child’s feelings, they create a safe space for them to explore their emotions without fear, judgment or expectation.

Lean on Your Community

Remember, you do not have to go it alone. Reaching out to members of your school community, particularly your child’s teacher, can be very helpful.

“It is essential that I am aware of the challenges that a child is carrying in their mind and heart. … As the child's teacher, I am there to listen, to console and to love,” says Eirich. “I want to be able to support the child in all facets of their life and their learning.”

Because kids spend a significant amount of time in school, even if it’s online, having a conversation with their teacher provides insight into how they are coping; it also puts another layer of support in place and reinforces the messages you are providing at home.

Normalizing Feelings

Parents can also normalize feelings by revealing their own—keeping in mind what level of sharing is age-appropriate.

Lindsay Fletcher, a nationally certified school psychologist who works at Bridgeway Academy, encourages parents to demonstrate the behaviors they are trying to create. “You want to be modeling healthy coping mechanisms. And you can show them, ‘I feel these same emotions,’” she says.

During Burnett’s conversation at the dinner table about the family cat, she became more emotional than she expected. “I ended up crying, and they saw me grieve,” she says.

Self-Care

It’s a daunting but necessary facet of effective parenting to be introspective and continually assess our own emotional responses. Simply put, ask yourself: How comfortable am I sitting with my own feelings?

As your family goes through the grieving process, do an honest assessment of your own emotional well-being. Sit with your feelings for a few minutes a day. Schedule face-to-face time with friends or family members who have experienced similar situations. Write a letter to your departed loved one or write in a journal to channel emotions in tangible ways.

Every step to bolster your own emotional health will enable you to better support your children.

Let Your Child Take the Lead

Grief is a process, and part of a parent’s job is to let it unfold. Pay attention to what children need and let them know you are there for them.

“Always normalize your child’s feelings, giving them that open space, that open invitation, to meet them where they are,” advises Fletcher.

Part of that is resisting the urge to make it better. Burnett admits that was difficult for her. “It was hard to avoid trying to make them feel better … to just let them breathe and let them be sad.”

Developing an empathic response is key. For example, your child’s best friend might be moving away and they are grieving the loss of their friendship. Try sharing a time you experienced something similar and talking about how you coped. “They start to see that not only are you Mom, you do get this, and you went through this, too,” says Fletcher.

Age-Appropriate Action Steps

Another effective strategy is creating developmentally appropriate activities to help your kids cope. For example, remember the happy times by telling stories about that lost loved one, friend or pet over dinner.

“It’s often very therapeutic to channel those emotions into something that is cathartic,” says Fletcher.

Keep in mind that every child will have different comfort levels as they navigate their feelings. One might want to keep mementos of a pet, but for another, removing toys and food bowls might give them the neutral space they need.

When Burnett encouraged her kids to come up with their own way of remembering Eddie, each made a different choice. “James wanted to keep Eddie’s bed, and Ryan wanted to write a letter and have a memorial. But my youngest, Will, wanted to draw a picture.”

In the end, children need to process grief in their own way. The most important thing is to let them know it’s OK to not feel OK, and that you’re there for them unconditionally.

This story is from the Spring 2021 issue of Columbus Parent.