When Death Comes to Your Family

When Death Comes to Your Family: Helping a Child


Marolyn Morford, Ph.D.

Your second child was stillborn. Your child’s grandfather, your father, died suddenly. The mother of your child’s best friend died after a long illness. Your family dog had to be put down due to illness. How can you help your child cope? Not all children and families respond the same to loss, and children have different temperaments and understanding at different ages. Here are some general suggestions that can help you and your child through this time.

  1. Be honest with your child as soon as possible: if an important family member or pet has died, for example, do not hesitate to talk to your child about the event, when appropriate. Don’t wait for the child to hear about it through the community or a less-than-thoughtful sibling.
  2. Don’t use substitute words such as “sleeping with angels,” “went to sleep,” “went away,” or that the person or animal was “lost”. These are called euphemisms; they substitute one word for another to soften or distance the meaning, but can also create confusion and anxiety. You know what you mean, but your child may be understanding the concrete meaning of those words and become fearful of going to sleep at night, or of you going to sleep at night, or of you becoming lost. You can use the terms ‘death’ and ‘dead’. This is how your child will learn about these words and concepts.
  3. Don’t assume children will be traumatized by learning about death or loss. Children have such a capacity for resilience, our genetic package having developed successfully over thousands of years of adverse conditions. In the recent and distant past, we had nary a support group and saw much more loss due to disease, malnutrition and occupational hazards. Young children, especially, are able to tolerate loss, even more so if their primary bonds remain stable.
  4. Be careful not to confuse your own grief with your child’s reaction. Your attachment to your family pet or to a friend or close relative is very different from your child’s relationship with that person. Do not confuse the two. Your reaction may be very strong: it might be hard to keep from crying and you may feel uncertain about your future without that special person or pet in your life. Pay attention to your own reaction or grief and take care of yourself.
  5. Do not blame your child if s/he has no observable reaction to the loss. Children understand death differently than we do. Accept that your child may have little or no reaction. As adults, we have an understanding of death and loss that can be powerful because we can foresee the effects our loss will have in our lives. Children do not have this knowledge. They had their own relationship with the family member who died. If they had no relationship (such as the case of a newborn sibling), don’t have unrealistic and unfair expectations of their response (see #4 above). Their understanding of death is evolving and can be as simple as ‘being gone a really long time,’ without an understanding that there will be no return. It will not be possible or helpful for you to explain in detail the permanency of death; this is something the child, like you, has to come to experience, to build her own concept of loss through death. Your child will need to talk to you about this off and on over the years as his or her concept of death develops.
  6. Listen to your child. By not assuming your child is feeling the same way you do and by listening to and observing your child, you will show s/he understands this event. Respect your child’s response, which might be no apparent response at this time or might include unusual behavior or a temporary regression in independent skills. Give the child time to ask questions about death and about the person who died, and feel free to say you do not always know the answer to some of the questions.
  7. Convey your confidence in your child’s ability to live beyond this loss, and even thrive in spite of it, reinforcing that loss is a normal part of life, even when loss is a complete surprise, such as a tragic car accident. Even if the worst is to happen, such as the preschooler I worked with whose father killed his mother and then killed himself, children can survive this, too, given other family and community supports. Let your child know that even though it feels sad now, s/he can share that sadness with others Make sure they know that you believe they can manage this experience.
  8. Be aware that your child is watching you. How you respond to loss, discuss it, and integrate it into your life is a model for your child. In many instances, your child will take his or her cue from you about how important this loss is. You may have rituals that you and your community use to integrate the loss. The resources you use are the ones you are showing your child how to use. Reach out first to family and friends, then if you find that you or your child is preoccupied with the loss or find it difficult to do the things you used to do, attend a community or hospital bereavement group and consult with a psychologist familiar with child development and behavior.

Marolyn Morford, Ph.D., is a developmental and licensed clinical psychologist, practicing at the Center for Child & Adult Development in State College, PA. www.ccad-pa.com. A version of this appeared in the Pennsylvania Psychologist E-Newsletter March 2010 edition.