How parents can help kids deal with griefThere are a lot of ailments we can treat as doctors these days. Whether it’s common colds or bumps and bruises, we know how to fix it. But there are other things you can’t just take medicine for or rub something on. One of those is grief, and dealing with the loss of a loved one.

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As a parent myself, I know this is one of those heartbreaking rites of passage we have to go through with our kids. It’s certainly not as fun as teaching them how to ride a bike or watching them graduate, but it’s just as important in helping them become well-adjusted adults.

Tips to keep in mind

The good news is, there are a lot of resources available to help you know what to say to your child when someone he loves — whether it’s a grandparent, a friend, or a pet goldfish — dies. Of course, a child’s ability to fully understand death will vary depending on age, so temper your approach accordingly. But here are some tips to keep in mind:

Be honest

It’s tempting to want to sugarcoat tough subjects for our kids, but when you think about it, that’s more for our sake than theirs. We are not protecting our children when we hide the truth from them. In fact, it is through honesty that we can take away a lot of the scariness, because the unknown can be so much scarier than the known.

That said, a gentle touch is a good idea. Younger children especially are quite literal in their view of the world, so a suitable explanation of death can be that the person or pet’s body stopped working. This can cover cases when the loved one was ill or elderly, and even if the death occurred suddenly because of an accident. It’s also important to communicate that the body won’t start working again.


While it’s great to have an idea of what you’re going to say beforehand, be prepared to answer whatever questions they may have. Their concerns might be a lot different than what you expect. And don’t feel like you need to have all the answers. If you don’t know something, just say so. Showing that you care enough to talk with them honestly and thoughtfully is what really matters, and it will show them they’re not alone in their confusion.

Tell them what happened to their loved one, and then see how they react, what their questions are. That will help it feel like a discussion and not a lecture.

Rituals and normalcy

Saying goodbye can involve a ceremony or ritual, whether that’s holding a funeral or burial for a pet, or maybe planting a tree or lighting a candle in someone’s memory. Find out if your child would like to do something along those lines, and support that effort. Having a symbol that your child can visit when he wants to remember the one who died can be a helpful and healthy way for them to cope with the loss.

They will get through it

Another thing to take comfort in when watching your kids deal with grief: We were all kids once. You got through it, and so will they.

Christopher J Schwake, MD– Christopher Schwake, MD, pediatrician, Southwest Pediatrics

Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin has primary care offices throughout southeast Wisconsin, including Southwest Pediatrics in New Berlin. Find a pediatrician near you.

Learn more about Christopher Schwake, MD.


Helping kids deal with grief: Tips for parents — 2 Comments

  1. i’d like to just say i have four beautiful children 21,17,15, & 09.. I was with my husband 17yrs before he passed from appendix cancer in 2012 when my youngest was 6 & who was basically his fathers shadow. My husband had a great relationship with the kids and always took the time because he didnt have a father so he was the best at it with his. I admired & loved him for many things.. It is very difficult for me to still watch my children in their grief but i do all these things i talk i listen we go over memories when they pop up often to let them know they were memories of great moments in their lives. However my youngest who is now 09 is constantly thinking about death, cancer and accidents afraid of something terrible happening. I did request him to be counselled at school a few times a week in hopes to get whatever he doesnt want to share with me out so he can be a child and not stress on such a thing as death. He tells me sometimes he doesnt want to talk to me cause he doesnt want to make me sad. I told him the only thing that makes my heart sad is knowing something is bothering you and you feel you dont want to burden me and tell me because it is not ever a burden it is a joy to me that my children all feel they can always come to me… Id like to know if there are activities or other things i can do for all my children (we are a close family) to help in a grief that will never be gone???

  2. Please accept our condolences on the death of your husband and father. He sounds like a wonderful man who is greatly missed. I would suggest taking your son and other children to a children’s grief center. They would be with other bereaved children and able to share similar experiences, explore feelings and learn coping skills in a group setting. During the children’s groups, there are also adult groups for the parents/guardians to support each other. These centers offer different family events and camps throughout the year as well. All their services are free. In the Milwaukee area, I would recommend Kyle’s Korner, 414-777-1585 or

    Nichole Schwerman, MA, CT
    Bereavement Coordinator/CISM Coordinator
    Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin