How to support your children through grief

5 ways to encourage healthy grieving to help them say goodbye.

Note: This article discusses sensitive themes and could be emotionally distressing for some readers.

In our village, there is a bridge we travel across most days and its railings are painted in all the colours of a rainbow. To passers-by, this decoration might seem a parochial celebration of the ‘rainbow region’ where we live, but the reason behind it is rather more poignant. Six years ago, a local eight-year-old boy died unexpectedly at school. He’d been a preschool friend of my son Finn – they’d played soccer together, although Finn was more interested in chasing his shadow than the ball.

Finn’s buddy loved rainbows, so his family organised for us parents and all his friends to transform those dull steel railings into a colourful, artistic memorial. It was a positive and beautiful way to share grief. That same year my older son’s best friend died. Although I’d experienced the death of my parents and several friends, with children it seemed so unnatural and so terribly unfair. I felt unprepared to steward my boys through their side-by-side sorrow. How would I support them to grieve well?

Be honest

Victoria Spence is a holistic funeral director, counsellor and death literacy advocate at her practice, Life Rites. She says it’s important to speak “clearly, truthfully and directly to your children” when someone dies. “I’d say ‘Jim’s body has died’. This makes it very tangible, practical and material,” says Victoria. With young children. she recommends that you get down to eye level and touch your heart with one hand, then their heart with the other, while explaining that their friend’s heart has stopped. Let them know that “all the love we have for our friend is still in our hearts”.

This opens the door to sharing whatever beliefs you have about the afterlife – whether that means heaven, returning to the cycle of nature, or something else – and explaining that just because someone’s body has died, that doesn’t mean our bond with them is broken. Victoria further explains that we shouldn’t use euphemisms around death because it can confuse and frighten children when we say their friend has ‘gone to sleep’, ‘gone away’ or been ‘lost’. Language matters.

Let them say goodbye

Explain calmly and lovingly what happens when someone dies, where their body is now and how their body will be placed in a coffin until we say goodbye. Tell them there will be a funeral and they may be invited. Sometimes we can see the person’s body if we wish. Your child may want to write a note saying goodbye, draw a picture or make something to go with the coffin, if that’s appropriate.

Make them feel safe

“With any death, the body’s first and most protective response is one of shock because our body will often perceive the death of another as a threat to our own safety,” says Victoria. Tell your child it’s natural to feel scared, but their friend’s death doesn’t mean our death or theirs will come any sooner. If fear really grabs hold, Spence suggests a ‘five things’ mindfulness exercise: bring them back to the present by asking them to list five things they can either hear, smell, see or feel right now.

Help them grieve healthily

Perhaps create a space at home so your child can remember their friend, with a photo, candles, flowers or favourite toys. In the days and weeks following, stay in close proximity to your child. Even if they don’t want to talk, they’ll feel supported by your presence. Staying connected with your community is helpful too, so make time for picnics or catch-ups with your child’s other friends and their parents.

Encourage them to share their feelings

The more we model healthy grieving by expressing our own feelings as they arise, the more our children will know that whatever they are feeling, is okay. After all, death is just a bridge and that bridge can be painted like a rainbow.

Don’t forget to nurture yourself

Supporting our children through grief can be taxing. Victoria suggests the following tips for parents and carers:

  1. Self-care is primary. Exercise, sleep, eat well, get massages and reach out for support.
  2. Grieving is supposed to slow us down. Do less than you might normally.
  3. Spend time in nature and around beauty. It is hugely restorative, helps us slow down and allows space for emotions.
  4. It’s okay to tell your child you don’t have all the answers. It’s enough for them to know you love them and are by their side.

Carmen Myler

Carmen Myler is a writer, editor and publicist based in northern NSW.

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