Helping Your Child Handle Death: A Parent’s Guide

The death of a loved one is never easy for a child to process. It can become harder when that loved one is cremated. Often, this means that the child never sees their loved one again. They must take the word of the adults around them that their loved one is gone forever. Helping your child handle death can feel overwhelming. This is especially the case if your child was close to their loved one. Or, maybe they didn’t get to say goodbye before the end. While you can’t remove the pain that your child will feel while grieving, you can walk them through what is happening.

Time to explain beliefs

If a loved one is having a funeral, often parents will explain the afterlife according to their own beliefs. Or, if the funeral is going to be very religious, they will choose to explain the beliefs of the deceased. I would still recommend you do this even if your loved one isn’t going to have a funeral or a ceremony. If there is a service, make sure that you explain that the urn or container is the representation of their loved one.

When my Pepa died, I told my son about Heaven. This was despite the fact that we have a different belief system. His funeral included a sermon from the pastor that came to conduct it. I didn’t want my son to be confused. He took it well at six years old. If your child is old enough to understand your belief system, they are often old enough to understand that not everyone agrees.

A ceremony of your own

I would encourage you to create a ceremony of your own. I encourage this even if those in charge of the arrangements chose not to do so. You can do it outside or somewhere that is safe and calm for you and your child. Give it some kind of structure. Share memories. Discuss where your loved one is now. Say goodbye in your own way. If you don’t have a belief about the afterlife, you can either discuss your loved one’s belief. Or, tell your child they are in a better place.

Some ideas for the remembrance part that you might include are:

  • light candles
  • look at photos
  • play familiar games
  • tell stories of favorite memories

For my Grandma, she played Yahtzee and Phase Ten all the time. She did that with all of her grandkids. In the afternoon after the funeral, we played for hours talking about how she hated to lose and would cheat in such a way that it always made you laugh.

Something to hold

Once the ceremony is over it is important to speak with your child about the grief process. Give them a place to visit or a way to speak to their loved one. My twin sister died just after we were born and my parents had her cremated. They also chose not to commission a stone or create a representative place for her in the family cemetery. That was hard on me growing up and even now as an adult. I never really had anywhere to mourn my sister. I would discourage you from doing something similar as it often leaves a child feeling like they are cast adrift with nowhere to channel their grief.

My grandma kept the teddy bear that was supposed to be her welcome home present. It was a match for the one she bought me that was supposed to be my sister’s. When my grandma was diagnosed with cancer, she gave it to me and I finally had something to hold when I felt sad and lonely thinking about my sister.

Today there are companies that create stuffed animals and pillows from the clothing of deceased loved ones. A website called allows you to chose between a pillow, stuffed animal, or a quilt. There are also Pinterest tutorials on doing it yourself if you have that talent.

A place to remember

Alternately you could create a Visit Space with pictures and objects that meant a lot to both the child and their loved one. Ideally, it would be a space that could be closed so that the child feels safe to express the emotions they are carrying around. Children are incredibly empathetic at the best of time and if you were also close to the deceased, they might be afraid to bring it up with you directly or present.

Annual remembrance

The hardest loss I ever dealt with was the loss of my own child in 2012. We had been excited to be new parents. The miscarriage and subsequent news that we would never be able to have children was devastating. Since we couldn’t bury our child, we chose kept his onesie, his stuffed dinosaur we got for his first gift and had our own ceremony.

Now every year our two children we adopted light a bond fire on Halloween and invite him to spend the evening with us. It’s something my family did in ages gone past before such practice was considered inappropriate. We spend the whole night tending to the fire and I tuck my kids in as each of them passes out in their own time. If the night falls on a school night and we have the extra days I’ll call them out of school. If we had a bad bout with an illness already that year, I postpone it to that Friday. The day isn’t particularly important as it is to come together as a family and remember the child I love as much as I do my living ones.

I would encourage you to create an Annual Tradition with your child to validate their grief as anniversaries are often hard on a child. If they are younger, they may feel sad the following year and not really understand why. It could help them for you to assure them that grief even in the years following the passing is okay to experience.

You might also enjoy this recent article from Mom Advice Line: How to Stop Living in the Past?