Helping children cope with a loss of a loved one

A question from a therapist…


In my practice I often talk to young people who have not been allowed to attend the funeral of a loved one, which they much regret. I wonder if you would write a little about how people can best support a young person during such a distressing time. I am thinking particularly about pre-teens and teenagers.


Thank you for asking about this very sensitive subject…

Losing a loved one when you are a child or teenager is often devastating. Similarly to you, I sometimes talk to adults who had lost a parent or sibling when they were young and feel that they never had a chance to grief properly. So it is important to support children and teenagers through the process of grieving, however difficult this may be for the parents.

The funeral is only one part of the mourning process, and I believe that the decision about whether children or teenagers should attend is personal- there is no one way that fits all families.  In this difficult time, some parents feel that managing their own grief as well as their children’s emotions in what is effectively a public event is more than they can handle. Others see the presence of their children at the funeral as a source of support. So it is best to find a way to deal with the loss where the needs of all family members are taken into account.

Children’s wishes about attending a funeral are important, but the final decision needs to stay with the parents.  When children wish to attend the funeral but parents feel that they may not be able to support them or cope with them, it may be a good idea to ask other people to help. An aunt, a godparent or a close friend are likely to be glad to help, so children can still attend and parents know that their children are well cared for.

There is a lot that family members can do to help children go through the grieving process, whether children attend the funeral or not. Here are some ideas:

A few days after the formal public funeral, parents and any children who did not attend the funeral can have a private ceremony at the cemetery. They can visit the grave and say goodbye without having other people around.

Alternatively, the family can have a small ceremony in their own garden or at home, perhaps plant a tree or some flowers that the deceased liked, or maybe light some candles. The family can also designate a corner in the garden or in their home as a memorial to the person who died.

Parents and children can also collect pictures to make a ‘scrapbook’ with photos, documents or anything that will help remember and appreciate the life that was lost. They can also have a memory box with objects they wish to keep which will remind them of that person.

Some people find that writing a letter to the person who died can also help them heal. They can express in the letter everything they did not have a chance to say when their loved one was alive. They can choose to keep the letter private, or take it with them to the grave.

It is very difficult to cope with death when a child also feels guilt or regret. Children (and teens) may feel that they had part in what happened and see it as their fault.  For example, if they happened to have angry thoughts about the deceased in the past, they may believe that he died as a result of their thinking. No matter what the circumstances, it is important to reassure children that death is a part of the cycle of life and is not their fault.

And other important thing- at such time, children sometimes say things that come across as egotistic or insensitive. For example, when losing a parent, children may be worried about who will pick them up from their swimming class or who will help them with their maths homework. We adults need to understand that this is natural and healthy, and find practical solutions to these everyday issues. It is completely appropriate for children’s developmental stage – even for young teens.

Make sure it is always OK to mention the person who died, but do not push and ask children how they feel. And if children do not talk about the loss, it does not mean that they feel nothing. Just do your best to keep the communication lines open.

These are just my thoughts- I hope it helps.

One Comment

  • ellyprior

    Thank you, Miriam. I really like the idea of a private ceremony after the public one and the scrapbook. I had come across the memory box idea before and your very helpful posting reminded me of that. I had a young client once who had started to forget what her mother had looked like – the few photos she had were no help. Just helping her to understand that it is normal (among other interventions) a year later helped.

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