Helping Your Child Cope With The Loss of a Parent
A grieving child can be likened to jumping in and out of puddles. While they are in the ‘grief puddle’ they might feel sad and upset, however, it might not be long before they jump straight out of the puddle into playing a game.
This is because children can be very resilient. But losing a parent will have a ripple effect that will continue throughout life, especially during the events that they feel their mum or dad should be there for.
There are lots of ways you can support your child through this difficult time.
Take care of yourself
If you are reading this, it means that your child hasn’t just lost a parent, but you may have also lost your partner. It’s natural to worry about how your child will cope with loss but remember to look after yourself too, as this will help you feel strong enough to support your son or daughter.
Taking care of yourself isn’t selfish. As your child’s biggest role model, they will copy what they see you do. For example, seeing you seek support from friends and family means they will know it’s okay to talk about their worries.
Coming to terms with sudden or expected death
Your child’s grief may be different depending on whether the death was expected or not. A sudden death such as an accident, homicide, suicide, or illness can be a shock. There is no time to say goodbye or process what is about to happen. Your child may experience a confusing mix of emotions all at once, feelings of guilt, disbelief, or vulnerability.
An expected death from a medical condition or illness, such as cancer, is slightly different although of course still painful. Sometimes, there is time to prepare for the loss, say goodbye, and make the most of their final days or months together. Your child may grieve little losses along the way as their mum or dad becomes less able to do things or go to places they used to enjoy. They may also feel guilty that they can’t help their mum or dad get better.
Depending on your child’s age, they may feel various emotions but be unable to understand or communicate them.
Children under three
Babies and toddlers haven’t yet learned about the permanence of death, so they are unlikely to understand what is happening.
A three-year-old may talk about the person as if they are on a trip or having a nap, or believe that they can be brought back with things like magic or medicine.
They may ask questions such as, “When is daddy coming back?”, which can be painful to hear. You may need to answer a lot of questions such as this and continue to reassure your child as they learn to understand death.
As they get older, however, they may notice that other children have a mum or dad, and question why they don’t.
This may bring about feelings of sadness and jealousy later on in life. It can be helpful for both of you to share memories, photos, and videos of the parent they have lost.
It may also be comforting to remind them that their mum or dad loved them lots, even if they can’t be here any more.
Four to Five Year Olds
By this age children typically understand that death is not reversible, so your child may be more aware that their mum or dad is not coming back. They may experience many emotions, but don’t yet have the language skills to communicate how they are feeling and why.
Imaginative play can be really helpful for processing these complex thoughts and feelings. It may be useful to give your child some toys that encourage this. Dolls or animal figures are particularly good for this as children can use them to act out roles, to reflect on events again and again while they make sense of them. Children can also take part in play therapy, where a therapist will observe the child playing to get better insight into their world and help work through their worries.
Reading picture books together about the loss of a parent can also help start a discussion, so your child has the chance to ask any questions they have.
Children over Six
Older children may be learning or already be aware that death is universal, in other words, everything dies eventually. This can be a really scary concept that even as adults we can struggle with. This may mean that as well as grieving for a lost parent, your child may become more fearful of other loved ones dying, or even start worrying about their own death.
It’s really important to talk about your child’s worries. It may help to access counselling or a local support group where they can talk about their feelings and realise they are not alone. Age-appropriate fiction books can also help your child process their loss and the concept of death.
Take cues from your child to know if they want to reminisce, share stories and fond memories. If it’s too soon or upsetting, these stories can be saved for when they’re ready. They may also find it helpful to write letters to the parent they have lost, as a way to keep a connection, ask questions they weren’t able to, and share the life events their mum or dad isn’t able to be there for.
Apps to Help Children cope with loss
- Moka Mera Emotions (3-6 yrs): This playful app features camera filters to show different emotions. You can use this as a starting point to talk about what things make your child happy, then move onto more difficult emotions, such as sadness. This can help teach your child how to recognise and talk about their emotions.
- Toca Life: Hospital (3-8 yrs): This is an imaginative play app that is based in a hospital. Children can take care of ill patients or let families say goodbye to loved ones in the peaceful Farewell Room. This can give children the chance to process illness and death through play, or promote discussion.
Me by Tinybop (5-9 yrs): This visual diary encourages children to think about their identity, tell their story, and express their feelings. It can be a helpful way for your child to think about how life goes on even after their mum or dad has passed away. They can also think about the friends and family who are there to support them and record memories of their time with the parent they have lost.
Five Tips to Help Your Child Grieve
- Reassure your child that it’s okay to talk about the mum or dad they have lost, but also respect their boundaries if they don’t want to talk.
- Share memories and photos of your loved one. It may help to create a memory box with special items.
- Encourage your child to ask questions and answer them as best you can. It can help to respond with a question to clarify exactly what your child is asking, to avoid confusion.
- Read books about loss together to encourage discussion and remind them that others have gone through similar experiences.
- Encourage your child to write letters to the mum or dad they have lost, to say the things they haven’t had the chance to say. Younger children could also draw pictures.
Losing a parent is very difficult, whatever age you are. Grief looks different for everyone so your child may feel sad, angry, or nothing at all. It’s hard to really know how to handle this, so try to take it one day at a time and make sure you both get the support you need. We never really get over the loss of a parent, but we can learn to live with it. I’d like to leave you with the Ball in the Box analogy that explains grief, and a few final tips and links to help your child cope with theirs.
YoungMinds – A guide to grief and loss, and where to get help
NHS – Links to further support
Child Bereavement UK – How your child might react, and useful resources