They may be small, but young children experience big emotions following the death of a loved one. Even children in a Catholic family who have an understanding of spiritual concepts, including heaven, will have questions and fears when they first experience the loss of someone they cherish, said Korina Jochim, clinical manager at Northwest Catholic Counseling Center in Northeast Portland.

Here are common responses children have following a death and suggestions for helping them process their grief.

Fears and reassurance

“If you’re looking at the science, younger children can’t cognitively understand that death is universal and that it’s forever,” said Jana DeCristofaro, a social worker at Portland’s Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families, a nationally recognized center for counseling kids. “They may wonder, ‘Does it mean they are going to come back?’ and ‘Does it mean I could die?’”

Counselors say it’s important to describe death to a child directly and with body-centered language. Rather than saying, “Daddy passed away,” or “He went to sleep forever,” explain that his body stopped working and doctors couldn’t fix it.

Euphemisms confuse children and can leave them with other concerns, such as fearing sleep is dangerous, said DeCristofaro.

“Starting with a clear story can help mitigate misinformation.”

If someone very close to the child has died, that child may fear abandonment, so it’s “important to reassure the child that you are there,” said Jochim. “You can’t promise them nothing bad is going to happen, but you can spend time with them, give them lots of affection and reassure them there always will be adults to care for them.”

DeCristofaro added that the reality of a death “percolates over time” for children. You could tell a young child, “‘Honey, Grandma’s heart stopped beating,’ and their first response is, ‘OK. Is it snack time?’”

Kids may alternate between periods of talking about it a great deal and not at all, said Jochim.

“Just because they are not talking about it doesn’t mean they aren’t having thoughts and feelings. Try not to make assumptions.”

One way to help kids express their feelings is through play. “They are probably going to clam up if you ask if they are feeling sad, but if you get on the floor and play with them — using their stuffed animals or dolls and working it into interactions — they may open up,” Jochim said.

In school, some children might suddenly be more focused while others have a hard time listening and understanding directions.

“Most of their energy is trying to process what’s just happened; not much is left for how to tackle schoolwork or how to behave on the playground,” said DeCristofaro.

Sometimes children think they contributed to a parent’s death. “If they learn that stress on Daddy’s heart is why he died, they may need to be told that it was not from the stress of them not doing their homework,” DeCristofaro said.

Caregivers should encourage children to ask questions and should listen to their concerns without trying to fix them. “That is so hard for adults,” said DeCristofaro.

“If a kid is feeling really guilty, don’t first say, ‘It’s not your fault; you didn’t do anything,’” she said. Instead, acknowledge their feelings and help them process them. You could say: “You’re feeling guilty. Why do you think you feel that way?” Then you could explain that it’s common to wonder or worry about that particular thing and then say, “That sounds stressful. What can we do with those feelings?”

It’s also crucial for caregivers — who will be grappling with their own grief — to obtain support.

“As parents, we sometimes forget about taking care of ourselves during this time,” writes psychologist Deborah Serani in a 2016 article in Psychology Today. “Children learn what they see, so be a role model for self-care.”

Rituals and faith

Children can be reassured that they are able to access close relationships spiritually, said Jochim. It’s tremendously comforting for kids to know “that Mommy or Daddy is in heaven looking out for them.” You can explain that “even though you will not see them in this life, the spirit is still there, and you can pray for them.”

Funerals, she added, can play a healthy role in grieving. They show children “it’s OK to mourn and we can gather together to cry and have rites for the dead.”

But both Jochim and DeCristofaro agree that a child’s preference should be honored when it comes to attending a funeral. “It should not be forced,” said Jochim.

Children who are not allowed to attend a funeral may feel they didn’t get their chance to say goodbye; those who were forced to attend may feel resentful.

It should be an informed choice, however. “Let them know what’s going to happen at the funeral, who is going to be there, what they are going to see and hear,” said DeCristofaro.

Yet there are faith-grounded reasons a parent may choose to bring children to a funeral. One is that bringing comfort to others is a work of mercy, and one that kids, even infants and toddlers, can be good at, just by being themselves. For example, a toddler’s unabashed laughter at the end — or middle — of a service can punctuate grief with the sounds of joy and life.

DeCristofaro said that when helping children cope with the death of someone they love, adults should remember it’s a lifelong process. “It is not something a child — or anyone — gets over. It’s something you learn to live with and integrate into your life. You are not going to stop thinking about the person.”

If a deep sense of loss comes back 20, 30 or 50 years in the future, “that’s normal and natural,” said DeCristofaro. “We need to shift from thinking grief is something that needs to be fixed to grief is something that needs to be acknowledged, heard, validated and supported.”


Find support

— The Dougy Center, based in Portland, provides support in a safe place where children, teens, young adults and their families grieving a death can share their experiences. Go to dougy.org, email help@dougy.org or call 503-775-5683.

— Camp Erin is a free weekend camp for children ages 6-17 who are grieving the loss of someone close to them. Go to providence.org/camperin or call 503-215-5879.