Tips for parents when there is a death

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When there is a death, as a parent, grandparent or guardian, what do you say to your children? How do you reach out to them? 

Here are some tips that could help with what you say to them and what you can expect from them. The age of the child is very important and will make a big difference in what they understand and how they will respond to what you are saying to them.

A preschool child has very little understanding of death and to them everything is temporary and is reversible—like the road runner who gets knocked down over and over again but seems to always come back. This is a time of magical thinking for them that nothing is real and everything is ok. 

Preschoolers use their behavior to explain how they feel. They have a fear of being abandoned or left alone, so they may become very clinging, withdrawn, wet their beds, revert back to thumb sucking and even at times become whiny. 

This is a time for patience, understanding, and reassurance that mom and dad are ok and will be there with them. When you go to the funeral don’t force them to go, if they want to go, please explain briefly what they will see before they get there and be available to them if they need to go home. It is a good idea to go early so they can experience what you told them before everyone arrives for the actual visitation or funeral.

They also love to play and their attention span is very short, so they may go outside and play and come back in, ask you a question and then go out again back and forth.

The child who is between five and nine, usually has an understanding that death is not reversible and that death can happen to anyone. They often think of death as a monster who comes to get you. They need to spend more time with family before bedtime, because they often associate death with darkness.

These children will want a detailed account of what happened to the person who died. They need honest and direct answers, not technical answers. Please respect their decision to go or not go to the visitation or funeral as well as the cemetery. These children should be told ahead of time what they will see at the funeral home or the church for the visitation and funeral before they actually go to either service.   

It is very important for their teachers and school counselors to know that there has been a death and to perhaps keep an eye on them. This age has a tendency to become very aggressive toward their teachers, other students such as throwing things, yelling out and can very disruptive in the class so as to get the attention that they may not be getting at home because everyone is grieving. Remember, sometimes any kind of attention is ok even if it means they are in trouble, because at least someone is paying special attention to them.

If possible, ask if there is a place for children to sit and read or color or play games at the funeral home. If there is something for children, you might let them bring their favorite coloring book or even their favorite stuffed animal to hold on to.

Preteen children are caught in between childhood and adolescence and often not sure what to do with that. They know that death is final and that everyone die will sometime. They may cry, but feel embarrassed about it and not cry in front of anyone. They need to know it is ok to feel what they feel. Please explain to them they may feel different emotions at different times and that is ok, such as sudden burst of anger, tears sadness and even feel very lonely and may with draw from their friends.

They too need to know what they will see and hear at the visitation, funeral and cemetery. Some may be crying others may be laughing still others just being very quiet. They also may want to look in the casket and touch the person, explain about what they will see and feel. 

Always leave the door open to listen!!  Never say their loved one looks like they are sleeping, because they may be afraid to go to sleep because they too may die. Be sure that their teachers and school counselors are aware there has been a death, so they can keep an eye on the child just in case they begin to act differently then they normally do.

Teenagers, are caught between childhood and adulthood. They may act like they have everything together, but inside they really don’t. They live for the moment and don’t feel death will happen to them, but perhaps to someone else. They like to take risks and don’t always care about the consequences. 

It is also very important that their teachers and school counselors are aware their has been a death and to keep an eye on the teen, especially if they suddenly become moody, grades begin to drop and they become a bit “mouthy.”

They may experience stomachaches, headaches, a decreased or increase in their appetite, have trouble sleeping, may withdraw and become even more sensitive than they usually are. They may feel guilty, and even think about ending their life, because they blame themselves for the person’s death because they had an argument or yelled at them, and the person died a couple days later. 

WHAT HELPS??  Listening to them and being patient with them. They love to listen to music, they like to express their feelings by being active such as: writing songs in memory of their loved one who died, art work, help mom or dad get through their sadness, hang out with their friends, write poems and be of help when possible.

Parents remember, your parents grieve twice. Once for your loss and once for their loved one. So, be kind to them as well as your children and most of all be kind and patient with yourself. Blessing to all of you!!!!!


My name is Dr. Dee Stern. I am a grief therapist, chaplain at a hospital, Parish minister, LCPC (Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor), and a psychologist. I have an Associate of Science, a Bachelors in Education, a Masters in Pastoral Studies and a Masters in Psychology, as well as a Doctoral in Psychology. I facilitate a grief support and a SOS (Survivors of Suicide) for family and friends of those whose loved one has already ended their life. I wrote a book which was published in January titled Comforting the Bereaved Through Listening and Positive Responding, sub title: What are the Bereaved trying to TELL US?