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Goodbye: A First Conversation About Grief

Grief is a universal human experience. The vast majority of children will experience the death of a family member or friend before they turn eighteen. These kinds of losses can bring up big life questions about who we are and why we are here, even for young children. They can also raise more concrete questions, like “What happens to bodies when they die?” or “When will we die?” For adults and children alike, loss is often painful and comes with big feelings. All children have a need and a right to be accompanied through this process by sensitive, empathic, attuned, capable, and competent adults. No child should ever have to grieve alone, so we, as adults, can equip ourselves to support grieving children. Whether you need help answering a child’s questions or some extra support moving through your own grief and loss, we hope that this book makes it a little easier. It’s okay to take a break, leave something out for now, or weave in stories of your own. Take your time and follow your child’s lead.


Seeing a child we love feel hurt or sad is very hard.When something really bad happens, like a loss, it can be our instinct to try to hide or minimize how sad it really is or to try to make it better quickly.This is often more about protecting ourselves from the pain that we feel from seeing them hurt. The truth is,it’s okay to trust children with their grief, and we have a responsibility to accompany them even if it’s hard. Understanding death, participating in a ritual or ceremony to say goodbye, and allowing unlimited time to grieve with support are things children need as much as adults. And as adults, we play an important role, even if we are grieving, too. The first step is simply talking about it. Opening that door lets children know that they are not alone and that they have support for how they are feeling.


For something as common and challenging as grief, most of us don’t talk about it enough. There’s a Big Silence around the topic that can make it especially hard to support young children. A lot of people want to help, but just don’t know what to say. At the same time, there is death all around us, both in the media and in our communities. In fairy tales and princess movies, people die and come back to life all of the time. On the news and in video games, extreme violence and mass death are normalized. That means that children are getting lots of different kinds of messages about death and dying from the world around them . . . and also a lot of misinformation.You can help children begin to understand the difference between fantasy and reality with simple phrases like “Wow! That’s amazing! In real life, when people die, they don’t come back to life.”


Understanding death is important in order to feel and process grief. Developmentally, young children think about the world differently than those of us who’ve been around a little bit longer. They often center their own actions and experiences. Because of that, they may think that a death is somehow their fault, or might not understand that when someone dies, you’ll never see them again. Instead of processing their own grief, they may focus on these other ideas that can bring stress and unease on top of unprocessed grief. 

When someone close to them dies, children should understand a few truths, including a reassurance that the death wasn’t their fault.They should know that when someone dies, their body stops working and that it won’t start working again. Death is irreversible, and it’s also inevitable. Children should know that everyone living eventually dies.This can be a hard one to discuss, so try to reassure them that while we don’t know when we might die, there are some patterns—like getting very ill, or dying when we get to be very old. If your child seems anxious when they themselves are sick, you can reassure them: “You are not going to die.That’s very unlikely and I’m not worried. I’m here to help you feel better soon.” You can have this conversation in small chunks, following your child’s lead and tuning in to what they are curious about, or what might be too upsetting for now.


It can be difficult to find the right words to talk about death. Much of the language that grown-ups have invented to talk about it can be too abstract and euphemistic for young children to understand. Saying things like “passed away” or “went to sleep” or “losing someone” at best mean nothing to a young child, or at worst make bedtime rather scary! It’s important to be direct, to use the words dead and death, and to explain what that means in very basic, truthful terms. When a death happens in a traumatic way, you can omit details that are scary or aren’t age-appropriate.


Even if we find the right words to discuss death with young children, they may have difficult follow-up questions, like “If Grandma died, when will we die?” It’s okay to take a beat and say you need a moment to think about how to best answer their questions. Start by really listening, to make sure you understand what the child is asking. Be truthful, specific, and reassuring. For example, you can say, “Yes, it’s true that everyone will die, and nobody is sure exactly when. But you are safe, and your life matters to me very much! It’s my job to keep you safe and alive, and it’s very unlikely that either of us will die anytime soon.”


The truth is that almost everyone in our world will feel grief at some point in their lives.That means that we are all part of a huge community of fellow past-, present-, and future-grievers. One of the main supports known to help with grief is community support. Talking to someone who has experienced a similar loss, joining a bereavement group, or just telling someone you love and trust how sad you are, are all ways we move through grief and help each other feel better. Children make up a huge portion of people who experience loss and grief. Due to COVID-19, the number of children who lost at least one parent or caregiver increased exponentially.We must include children in our communities and conversations, and know that even if it shows in different ways, children are grieving and need community support as much as we do.


Grief can look different in young children. Their moods may change quickly, going from sad or emotional to happy and playful. This doesn’t mean they’re not still grieving; it just means that they have other ways of coping, including play and laughter. Helping children name their emotions is one way to help them express when they are feeling sad and need support. You can play guessing games with facial expressions to help them recognize and name their feelings or read books that show children feeling different emotions. Because grief can be dysregulating in many ways for young children, it’s a good idea to stick to a routine as much as possible. Even if it’s a new routine because of changed circumstances, make a daily schedule together so that there are some things to look forward to and to count on during an uncertain time.

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There is no one right way to move through grief. It is common for grief to impact an entire family or community at the same time. That means that children are often relying on grieving adults for the emotional support that they need, while grieving adults are responsible for providing attuned emotional care for children on top of navigating their own grief process. It can help to remember that children are grieving, too, in their own way, and that it is important to meaningfully include them in the family and/or community’s rituals and traditions. For those who have access, take advantage of the therapeutic support that is available to you.We all deserve as much support as we need.

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