How To Talk With Children About Grief And Loss

We all have the natural desire to comfort grieving children and let them know we care. Knowing the right thing to say – and equally important, what NOT to say – is always extremely delicate. Author David Kessler is one of the world’s foremost experts on grief and grieving, and he worked closely with legendary author Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, internationally known for her research into the way people think about death and dying. Kessler says that society gives us, adults and children alike, conflicting message about how we should grieve “correctly.” His life’s work has been to dispel myths about grief and grieving, and his fundamental advice is that “grief is a ‘no-judgement zone.”

Kessler says that, for each of us – at any age – our grief “is as unique as our fingerprint.” And also regardless of age, it important to give yourself the time and space to experience grief and to feel our feelings.

Children experience grief very differently from adults. Adults often talk about their feelings, but children can only process grief according to that child’s level of development at the time, so we can’t expect them to handle this emotion in the same way.

Also, Kessler says that children can find it helpful to hear an adult talk about their own experience of grief, letting them know that there is no pressure and no expectation of how they are “supposed” to be grieving. Even if a child is not talking about grief and may not show the signs we expect to see in an adult experiencing that emotion, this doesn’t mean that the child is not feeling the emotional impact.

It’s helpful to be aware of some things NOT to say to a child who has experienced a loss:

  • “I know how you must feel.” The truth is, we cannot know this.

  • “You’ll get over it in time.” Children may feel that we are “invalidating” their right to mourn the passing of a loved one, and the time they may need to do this

With sensitivity and thought before entering into a conversation with a child who has experienced a loss, just letting them know that we care and that we are available for support can make a huge difference.

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