How to Talk to Kids about Managing Childhood Grief

In this podcast, Dr. Robyn Silverman interviews Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor, Katie Lear, about how we can help kids to manage childhood grief. Using specially-designed activities and discussion points, children can open up about a variety of feelings and learn that they can confide in us about the tough stuff- even when it’s hard to hear. 

Childhood is supposed to be filled with good times and laughs—but of course, some children may experience a significant loss during their childhood or adolescence. It’s actually more common than you might think. According to the Childhood Bereavement Estimation Model, as of 2021, one in 14 American children will experience the death of a parent or sibling before the age of 18. Still, it’s not easy to talk about grief with adults, let alone kids—but as the key adults in our children’s lives, we need to be able to step in and navigate the thoughts and feelings that they are experiencing as they cope with their loss. They likely will have many questions when a grandparent, parent, sibling, or other close family member or friend dies. They might wonder if they are at fault if they are safe and who will make their grilled cheese sandwich and take them to soccer if the person who passed away was the one who did those things for them. When we shut down, don’t talk about grief and death with kids or make the mistake of assuming if they aren’t talking about it, they must be fine, kids can wind up filling in their questions with their own answers based on misunderstandings and incorrect information. We need to help them get the conversation going through a variety of techniques that allows them (and also us!) to manage grief in productive ways. We’ve discussed talking about death and grief with Joe Primo, in the past, and we’ve talked about suicide with Dr. Dan Reidenberg and Dr. Jonathan Singer—and now we will discuss grief through a new lens with Katie Lear who uses child-friendly activities to comfort kids and help them to overcome sadness, fear, and loss.

Katie Lear is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor, Registered Drama Therapist, and Registered Play Therapist based in North Carolina. She combines creative play with research-based tools to help children, tweens, and teens cope with anxiety and trauma. Katie brings her expert knowledge to her new book, A Parent’s Guide to Managing Childhood Grief, as she walks through important topics like how different children grieve, how to talk about death, and what signs to look out for during the grieving process. And today, we’ll also discuss the tools you need to connect with your child and move toward healing and acceptance as a family when your child is grieving a significant loss.

Important Messages:

  • Grief: It’s not all heavy, even when the subject is heavy.
  • Topics are hard to discuss- and if we can’t talk about them as adults, how are we going to talk about them with kids?
  • How children grieve: Grief can look different both in age and in development, because we know too that, two 12 year olds can be very different in terms of where they’re at maturity wise. I think knowing how children grieve is really helpful because it doesn’t always look the way thaewe would expect. For a long time, like in the Freudian days and a little bit after, there was this assumption that children were not capable of grieving! Assumption: they didn’t have the psychological maturity yet to really understand what death is. But we know now that even little children who haven’t fully figured out conceptually what death means in a permanent way still can grieve the loss of somebody in their life.
    • Preschoolers: They can use play to talk about their loss. Children this age really have a hard time grasping that death is a permanent state. They may have some understanding of death, but it’s coming from cartoons, it’s coming from movies, it’s coming from Disney. So they may have beliefs or images that come to mind about death for them that are not totally accurate. Children this age may ask repeatedly when a loved one is coming back because they are not old enough yet to really grasp that death is permanent. And you may see that grief coming out in behavior and coming out in play– hard time putting their feelings into words– but we might see it come out through reenacting scenes in play or by regressing. We’ll often see kids that age acting younger and picking up habits from earlier developmental stages as a way of trying to feel more secure. So that could look like having a hard time sleeping alone, potty training issues, thumb sucking.
    • And then as the kids are getting older and they have more of an understanding of what death is, grief can still look different. Major rollercoaster. And I, I often hear from people like, they were fine a moment ago and then they were not fine. And I, I don’t know how to react. Like, and then they’re playing and then upset. In the middle of a serious moment, and I’m crying because they were crying. Now they want play with the neighbor who just rang the doorbell. Like, it’s very confusing for them.
    • If we think about an adult griever behaving that way, it would be very strange. If we had a friend who was grieving and one minute they were sobbing uncontrollably, and the next they stood up and ran off and they were reading a book someplace else and telling us about a video game they were playing that would be very jarring for an adult to see. But with children, it’s really natural for them to go through their grief in, in bite-sized pieces for adults. Grief can be very static. It can be sort of an all the time feeling that stays with us. We always remember that we’ve had this loss. But if an adult’s emotional capacity is sort of like a, a full eight inch drinking glass, a child’s capacity is sort of like a little shot glass.
    • Elementary schoolers tend to show us their grief as opposed to tell us their grief. So we might see things like behavior, problems in school, concentration issues that almost look like ADHD, We might see anger issues at home, things that might not immediately spring to mind as being grief related, but really when we dig into it, are how children are processing their feelings about their loss. (My own daughter asked, what should I say? When her friend lost her dad. I told her she could say something! It doesn’t have to be a secret- but then don’t press the person and make them talk about it if they don’t want to do that.
    • Teenagers and tweens: Think abstractly about death, and they might be asking more difficult questions, whether that’s details about how their loved one died or why their loved one died. It could be more existential questions about what this means for them in their life. Children this age may start thinking about their own mortality, about the afterlife, about the safety of their loved ones. And children this age are often leaning a lot more on their friends and their peers for social support, as opposed to just being totally reliant on parents. This big support system. But I’ve also worked with tweens and teens who are really worried about being a burden on their friends or coming across as, as weird. There’s a lot of worry at this age about, I think in all things like, am I normal? Are my feelings normal? Do I seem normal to others? And I’ve had some kids really mask their symptoms because they don’t want other people to know that they’re grieving.
    • Friend’s teen: There are times when she just needs her friends to kind of just jump in and kind of know what to do. Like she, to ask her, what do you need? What do you want? She doesn’t know, at that moment. So sometimes she just needs her friends to kind of ebb and flow with her, which can be very challenging. I need you to just remember what my favorite things are. Maybe just sit with me and not say anything at all.
    • It felt like dead was a really bad word to say. Like a swear word to say. (We need to say these words because the kids that need to understand the permanence of it, and these are not bad words to say, yeah. Dead or death or, or she died) Stay away from euphemisms to avoid confusion with young kids. Can you, can you imagine saying, oh, well grandpa just fell asleep and, and he’s not going to wake up again? How scary bed, how scary bedtime could be?
  • How would you explain that to a preschooler versus a child who might be school-age or, or a tween?
    • Preschool child, I would probably start very simple. And with elementary school children and older, you can build on that same explanation and, and, and flesh it out.
    • Preschool: “Uncle John died today, when a person dies, it means their body stops working and it doesn’t start working again. Their heart stops beating, they can’t feel or think or move, they’re not feeling any pain. They won’t be able to visit with us and we won’t see them again. We’re describing physically and concretely what happens when a person dies.
      • Often children’s first thought, when something like this happens, is, what does it mean for me? Am I safe? Am I cared for? And are my feelings going to be okay here? So you can follow that up with what you know about the plan so far. Maybe, you know, mom has to go visit the cousins tomorrow to make sure everything is okay. Dad will stay here with you. The babysitter’s going to come. There will be lots of people to take care of you tomorrow. And you can have any kinds of feelings or questions you want about this.
      • And then you can even offer a couple of comforting activities for later in the day if they want. Would you like to be by yourself? Would you like to watch a movie together? What, tell me what you would like to do today –and then open, and then open it up to questions from them.
    • For an older child, I think you can have a very similar explanation based on your understanding of where they’re at with understanding death. It’s permanent, that the body stops working for something like cancer. Cancer is a disease that affects little tiny parts of our body called cells. And cancer is a disease that takes good cells and turns them into bad cells, and they grow really quickly and they can hurt the body. So, you know, in Uncle John’s case, the doctors tried really hard to take care of his cancer and he took a lot of medicine, but eventually those bad cells got to be so big and so strong that it caused his body to stop working. And he died.
    • Giving an explanation like this can sound a little bit morbid, but what it does is it takes away questions for the child about could they have done anything differently.
    • Magical thinking- elementary school aged kids often have a belief that what they think and what they feel affects the outside world directly. And I have worked with many children who have had a deep, deep fear that thinking something angry about a sibling or wishing somebody was dead, or even just feeling mad, somehow caused their loved one to die.
    • Guilt. Need to talk to them about how it happened and how they had nothing to do with it. There was nothing, no, no matter what thoughts they had, good or bad, it wouldn’t have made a difference in this situation
  • Activities that can help with the grieving process:
    • Children’s books: if you recognize your own experiences in that story, it really drives home the fact that, that those feelings are okay to have and common to have.
    • Ball in the Box concept. It, it was originally a tweet that went viral on Twitter where a woman was talking about how grief is like having a ball in a box, and that you have a box that has an imaginary button in it. And you imagine that right after somebody dies, this box has an enormous ball inside that is moving around and every time it presses the button, you feel pain and you feel grief and you’re reminded of your loved one. And that as time progresses, it’s as if the ball gets smaller and smaller and smaller. So it’s rattling around and it doesn’t hit the button as much. beautiful image for adults to think about how grief never fully goes away. And it’s okay to have these triggers, but it lends itself to really demonstrating we can make it hands-on with items we’ve got at home. You can, you can get a box, you can demonstrate this with kids, you can put a softball in the box and a marble in the box and really make that an experience that engages kids physically and with their senses to feel what that is like.
    • Perspective-taking activity through being a film critic.
    • Double dip feelings using a beach ball
    • Watching a movie together that we know has emotional content in it and giving children an opportunity to recognize and name those feelings and other people is a great first step that feels more inviting and less overwhelming to children than immediately having to dig deep into their own story and their own emotional life.
    • You talk about looking for the helpers as, as one of them, which we’ve heard a lot when quoting Mr. Rogers and sensory bottles and beanbag breathing and going through an exercise which allows your child to decipher what they can and can’t control.
    • Drawing: “let’s imagine that this is a child whose grandfather died recently. And they are having all kinds of thoughts and all kinds of worries in their brain about this. So we’re going to draw a brain inside of this head and we are going to fill it up with all of the different thoughts and worries that this kid could be having.” And I would then suggest that we take turns doing that instead of just having the child write down all of the worries that this person could have, we’re going to alternate. And that does two things. It takes a little bit of pressure off of the child, but it also gives me, as the adult a chance to offer a good role model of what some of those thoughts could be. Take turns.
  • When we have all these worries, but we don’t talk about them, they kind of get stuck in our brain. We try to push them down or we try to push them under the rug, it still remains a lumpy rug. (Dr. Robyn)
  • Some children feel like they are only a certain amount of time to have their “pity-party.”
  • How can it help to address the anger that they may be feeling? Unfairness. Giving kids a chance to voice these things that almost feel like you’re not allowed to say them because of course, we can’t be mad at our friends for being annoyed at their dad. Like, when a friend is complaining about their mom or dad—and the child is just wishing they still had their mom or dad to annoy them. So hard to listen to non-bereaved friends talk about the day-to-day frustrations with their parents when you’ve lost a parent.
  • Whiteboard: I think it’s called spray away, where you can draw a picture of somebody you’re mad at that could be the person who died. It doesn’t make them a bad person. This is a safe place to voice those angry feelings.
  • CO-empathy. They are not alone.
  • Top tip: Talking about grief, especially sharing your own memories, your own thoughts, your own feelings of grief doesn’t hurt a child.

Notable Quotables:

  • Grief: It’s not all heavy, even when the subject is heavy.
  • I think for many of us, whether we are parents or we’re professionals in the field, there is a tremendous pressure to feel like you have to get this conversation right. We have those few really taboo subjects like sex and death, and there’s this feeling that more so than with other issues we talk about that there is a real weight on this, that we could somehow get it terribly wrong and somehow create a really bad memory for a child if we talk about this in the wrong way. My gosh, if we don’t know how to talk about this with each other, then how on earth are we going to speak about it with kids?
  • Children’s grief is like a major rollercoaster. One minute they’re playing and then they’re upset. In the middle of a serious moment, and I’m crying because they were crying, they want play with the neighbor who just rang the doorbell. If we think about an adult griever behaving that way, it would be very strange. But with children, it’s really natural for them to go through their grief in bite-sized pieces.
  • If an adult’s emotional capacity is a full eight inch drinking glass, a child’s capacity is sort of like a little shot glass. And when the glass is full, they’ve done what they can for now with their grief, and they will often put it aside and move on to something else. And it doesn’t mean necessarily that they’re over it, they’ve set it aside for now, and they’ll come back to it later.
  • Elementary schoolers tend to show us their grief as opposed to tell us their grief.
  • With my friend, It felt like dead was a really bad word to say. It felt like that was almost like a swear word to say. And I shouldn’t say it because it’d be very rude, but also what a bizarre phone call for my poor friend who thank goodness hung in there with me and educated me in this conversation about what she needed.
  • Grief is a really scary feeling, and it can feel very out of control. And I think many of us assume that people feel sad when a loved one dies, which we absolutely can, but we could also feel numb or angry or confused or very scared. And all of those feelings are okay too.
  • When we have all these worries, but we don’t talk about them, they kind of get stuck in our brain. We try to push them down or we try to push them under the rug, it still remains a lumpy rug. (Dr. Robyn)
  • Talking about grief, especially sharing your own memories, your own thoughts, your own feelings of grief doesn’t hurt a child.
  • Grief: There are no magic words. There is no magic time. It’s okay if it’s awkward. Talk about it.

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