Helping your child cope with grief

grief; children

My grandmother sadly passed away in January this year. Although we knew that it was time for her beautiful soul to rest, after living 91 fruitful years and suffering through her final months, we were all devastated. On the night of her passing, my little man had quite a few questions. I wasn’t surprised by this, as he also had questions when my father and maternal grandmother passed; but I was surprised by the nature of the questions and the amount of detail that he wanted this time. For instance, he asked me to tell him exactly HOW she passed and that I shouldn’t just tell him that “she was sick”, because he already knew that! HA! I was stunned. I tried to explain it as best I could.


In the African culture, on the night that a family member passes, we whisper in the child’s ear at night while they’re sleeping. The purpose of this practise is to “inform” them that the family member has passed away and that they won’t see them again. The belief is that this settles a child’s spirit. With my daughter I did it immediately and didn’t wait for the night, as she was present with us when my gran took her final breath and immediately become highly unsettled. The whispering calmed her down right away. It’s scary and amazing at the same time. When my son went to bed that night, I did the same.


A month later, my son told me that he wasn’t been sleeping well since Gogo had passed because his heart is sore and that he is worried that I will die one day. I felt so bad, because here I was thinking that he’s moved on and was fine all along. He wasn’t particularly close to my gran, so I seriously didn’t think that there were still loopholes to close with regard to his grief or that he would associate her passing with the thought of potentially losing me. Clearly I overlooked things.


Helping your child cope with grief:

  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings: just because they are small, it doesn’t mean that their emotions can’t be big. Encourage them to share whichever emotions they may have and understand that these feelings will vary daily, from anger, fear, sadness, acceptance etc.
  • Share your feelings too: tell your child when you feel sad and hurt too, in this way, they will know that these are normal emotions to feel through this process. Telling them “not to feel sad” won’t help the situation.
  • Routine: expect regression in toddlers but try and maintain the same routine for children of all ages. Further disruptions and changes may make your child feel worse.
  • Affection: show plenty affection. Don’t underestimate the power of touch – it can reinforce stability and closeness that a grieving child craves.
  • Honesty: explain death/loss to them as openly (and as age-appropriately as possible) – answer the difficult questions that come your way.
  • Ask open-ended questions: this will give them an opportunity to really tell you how they are feeling. E.g. “tell me about how you’ve been feeling since Gog passed away?”; “what memories do you have of Gogo?”


Signs your child is not coping well with grief:

  • Decline in school grades and/or concentration levels
  • Loss of appetite
  • Withdrawal from others / moodiness / aggression
  • Not able to sleep well (this happened to us and I missed the sign)
  • Sadness/ constant crying
  • Hitting / biting / shouting


I’ve really learnt a big lesson here – grief is not exclusive to adults and just because a child was not close to the deceased, it doesn’t mean that they won’t be hit hard by the loss. I hope this has been an eye-opener for you too.


Modern Zulu Mom

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  1. May Gogo’s soul Rest In Peace! Kids surprise us. They understand more than we think and it is essential we are upright with them within reason! Thanks for these tips very helpful and a great reminder

  2. “Those we love don’t go away, they walk beside us everyday. Unseen, unheard, but still always near. Still loved, still missed & held so dear”

    Thank you


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