By Vanessa Rasmussen, © 2004, All rights reserved.

At some point your child will be faced with a loss or death and they will need help in understanding what happened, why it happened, and their feelings about it. The death of a loved one is never easy, but it can be especially hard for your child to lose a close friend or a family member.

Death is always unnerving, but while an adult can understand and even rationalize the situation, a child may not know how to cope with the flood of emotions. How a child handles the death of a loved one depends on his personality and his experiences. Some children will become withdrawn; others will cry; still others will act out in anger.

Children have to be told about death. It will make sorrow and death much easier for a child to deal with, if they know something about it beforehand. How much they understand, how it affects them, and how you talk about it depends greatly on their age and level of emotional development. By talking to your children about death, you may discover what they know and do not know - if they have misconceptions, fears, or worries. You can then help them by providing needed information, comfort, and understanding. Talk does not solve all problems, but without talk you are even more restricted in your ability to help.

As a parent or caring adult, your first thought may be to shelter your child from the painful reality of death. You may even have trouble dealing with death yourself, and may not know how best to support your child. Most parents wait until confronted with death to start thinking about how to help their children with the concept, while a lot of them want to protect their children from pain.

But not dealing with death or holding back the grieving process-for either yourself or your child-can lead to problems in the long run. Your child may think that it's wrong to show sadness, or he/she may develop extreme fear and worry about death. He/she may even start to express his anguish in detrimental ways, such as turning to alcohol or drugs for solace. So, it's important for children to know that they can share their feelings and get honest answers from their parents about death.

Here are some tips that can help your child through the grieving process and help him/her deal with death appropriately:

  • Tell the truth. Children need competent guidance and satisfactory answers to their questions.
  • Be subtle and tactful in your answers. You do not need to include details that may frighten your child. The development and age of the child needs to be borne in mind.
  • Avoid using euphemisms and clichés when explaining death, such as the person went on a 'journey' or is 'going to be asleep forever.' Younger children may take these explanations literally and be afraid to go on a trip or journey or go to sleep themselves because they will associate those things with dying.
  • Express your feelings and allow your child to express her feelings so that they aren't expressed in other, unhealthy ways.
  • Comfort your child. Help your child deal with difficult emotions-including anger, guilt, shame, or confusion.

If your child is having a hard time due to the death of a loved one and if it is leading to problems in his functioning at school or at home, then you may want to seek help from your Pediatrician or a child psychologist.

Copyright 2001, 2004. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article in whole or in part without written or verbal permission is strictly prohibited. For information about reprinting this article, contact the copyright owner: Vanessa Rasmussen, Ph.D, Starting a Day Care Center,