How to help a grieving child

How to help a grieving child

When a parent dies, their child is left devastated and traumatised by the immense loss. Fundiswa Nkwanyana looks at ways to support a grieving child by teaching them healthy coping mechanisms.

Death is a part of life that can’t be avoided, and children are not spared the heartache that comes with losing the most important person in their life. In most cases, grief can cause physical pain, loss of appetite, rage, anxiety, remorse and regret. But, you can step in and help them deal with this pain.


Talking about death is unpleasant, but it is an important topic that you should have with children. “When having the conversation with a child, avoid saying the parent has left, is sleeping or at a happier place, or has passed on because this confuses them,” says psychologist Tracy Smith. She explains that saying the dead parent is sleeping might make the child think they will wake up later, or they may be afraid to fall asleep in case they also don’t wake up. Instead, choose your words carefully and be honest about the cause of death. Additionally, use age-appropriate language that is in line with their development stage. “Keep the conversation short because too many details can be overwhelming for a young child’s mind,” cautions Tracy. Depending on their age, their understanding of death may vary. “Children under two years don’t understand death, but they are often aware of the separation and may react by crying more or there might be drastic changes in their eating or sleeping habits. Those aged from 3–6 years don’t fully understand what death is and often think it’s temporary. So, explain exactly what it is and let them know that it’s not their fault because children they usually feel guilty,” says Tracy. She adds that 6–12-year olds understand what death is, and often equate it to a person becoming a ghost, skeleton or angel. They often become worried and fearful of death, and may struggle to talk about it. This may affect their school work. Those aged from 13–18 years understand it, but lack the coping skills. They’re also likely to react angrily and question religion and the meaning of life. “It is important to understand and respect the way a child chooses to grieve because this is an essential part of the healing process. You also have to listen to them, closely monitor their behaviour without judgement and reassure them that it gets better with time,” she adds.

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With the help from our experts, we take a look at the different causes of death, and offer guidance on how you can help a child cope during this painful experience.


“When I was 10 years old, I was in a horrific car accident that led to the death of my parents at the scene. My younger brother and I survived, and we watched them take their last breath. It’s been over 40 years since their death and sometimes, I still cry about it because the pain and memory of losing them is still there,” shares Lefa Mosea. Child psychologist Nomonde Khambule believes that early intervention from a supportive adult can have a long-term positive effect on the devastated child. “When supporting a grieving child, talk to them about the happy memories they shared with their parent/s and help them create a memory box that is filled with their pictures and special items. Involve other family members and friends, and encourage them to share their happy memories,” says Nomonde. She says keeping the deceased parent‘s memory alive is important. Most people plant a tree in the family home, celebrate their birthdays, cook their favourite meal and celebrate their lives.


“When I was 12 years old, my mother died from an Aids-related illness after been terminally ill for over a year. Watching her health deteriorating as well as having to take care of her and my younger siblings was hard. After she died, my two siblings and I were left in a child-headed home until we were moved to a foster home,” says Seladi Muthejwana. Children who watch their parents dying are usually traumatised before the death, and so need extra love and support. “In this instance, you have to be affectionate and take over some of the chores and responsibilities to lessen the burden. Give them some time to mourn. You also have to lead by example, and allow them to see you cry and be sad. This will make them see that there is nothing wrong with expressing pain,” says Tracy.

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Amos Magwete lost his father suddenly. “When I was 17 years old, my father died from a heart attack. My whole family was surprised because he was fit and healthy. His death came as a surprise,” he shares. Nomonde explains that although older children understand death, they struggle with adapting to the changes that it brings. “Teenagers are likely to hide their grief, question religion and express mixed emotion. Listen and help them adapt to living without their parent by guiding and supporting them.” Unresolved grief can turn into bitterness and depression. Therefore, it’s important to mourn in order to adapt and find healing and closure. “The pain never really goes away. But, you can learn to live with it,” she concludes.


  • Have open and honest conversations about grieving.
  • Reassure them that they will still be loved and well-taken care of.
  • Inform them that grief comes and goes, and it’s a long and emotionally draining process. This is so that they know what to expect.
  • If you’re concerned about their behaviour, urgently get advice from a counsellor, social worker or psychologist.