01 February 2012

How to treat grieving children

A child’s grieving process may be made easier by being open and honest with the child about death.


A child’s grieving process may be made easier by being open and honest with the child about death, using direct language, and incorporating the child into memorial ceremonies for the person who died.

Explanation of death

  • Not talking about death (which indicates that the subject is off-limits) does not help children learn to cope with loss.
  • When discussing death with children, explanations should be simple and direct.
  • Each child should be told the truth using as much detail as he or she is able to understand.
  • The child’s questions should be answered honestly and directly.
  • Children need to be reassured about their own security (they often worry that they will also die, or that their surviving parent will go away).

Correct language
A discussion about death should include the proper words, such as cancer, died, and death. Substitute words or phrases (for example, “he passed away,” “he is sleeping,” or “we lost him”) should never be used because they can confuse children and lead to misunderstandings.

Planning memorial ceremonies

  • When a death occurs, children can and should be included in the planning of and participation in memorial ceremonies. These events help children (and adults) remember loved ones.
  • Children should not be forced to be involved in these ceremonies, but they should be encouraged to take part in those portions of the events with which they feel most comfortable.
  • If the child wants to attend the funeral, wake, or memorial service, he or she should be given in advance a full explanation of what to expect.
  • The surviving parent may be too involved in his or her own grief to give their child full attention, therefore, it may be helpful to have a familiar adult or family member care for the grieving child.

National Cancer Institute


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