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How Can I Help My Child Deal with the Death of a Friend?

It might help to consult a grief counselor to understand how best to help a child deal with a friend's death.
Young children may not know how to react to the news of a friend's death.
Children may have an especially hard time dealing with the death of a friend.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 22 November 2014
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It is unlikely that a child will make it through childhood without experiencing death. When the passing is unexpected, it can be challenging to break the news to a child. A very young child, who has never experience the death of a friend, pet or loved one, may not know how to react to such news.

Children often want to know what it means to die. For young children, this may mean explaining that physically, death is a process where the body stops working. Using euphemisms like passing on or went to sleep are not recommended, as they may cause the child to have concerns that they might accidentally die in their sleep.

Children may also want to know what happens to a body after someone dies. In fact they may ask questions that can shock a parent. It’s considered best to treat such questions with accurate but simple facts.

Even with an explanation, after the death of a friend, children may not be able to grasp that a friend is really gone. If the family believes in some form of afterlife, this can prove comforting or perplexing. Children that believe in God may find themselves wondering why God caused the death. There is no one good way to approach this, except to assure the child that he or she is safe.

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Thus, the death of a friend is basically the beginning of many conversations, some factual, some spiritual and some emotional. It is highly likely that a child’s way of grieving is quite different from adult response. Children may not cry, or they may not want to talk about it. They may think about it much longer and have questions six months down the road. Conversations about what it means to die may have to be repeated.

Openness with one’s child to these conversations is absolutely key. Instead of expecting a child to feel a certain way, expect him or her to feel many different ways. A child who experiences the death of a friend may act out, or get sad sometimes years after a death. Alternately, they may not shed a tear, because they simply cannot grasp the issue.

It can help to consult other parents or a grief counselor if you feel unable to answer your child’s questions. Grief counselors can help one navigate parenting through this tragic experience. When necessary, a child may benefit from some individual grief counseling or play therapy as well.

Older children may react differently to a death of a friend than a younger child. In fact, teens often don’t want to discuss their feelings with parents. They may feel more comfortable discussing their thoughts with their peers. When the death is felt by a school community, for example, schools are often excellent at providing grief counseling and support to the students in the challenging months ahead.

While it's important to let a teen know you are available to them, it’s also important to respect their space if they don’t want to discuss their feelings. It is not wise to try to force a discussion with a teen. One can, however, initiate family counseling if the death affects all family members.

However, one should look for signs in the teenager of continued depression. Sometimes close friends may imitate a death of a friend. This is a dangerous situation, and requires watchfulness. Should a teen seem after a few months not to be recovering at all, counseling should definitely be considered.

Some parents feel that they shouldn’t show their own emotions about the death of a friend to children. However, psychologists often feel this is a mistake. While overblown screaming and crying might make the child worried, natural tears and feeling sad in front of child may help him or her understand they too can cry or feel sad. Parents and friends teach a lifelong lesson about how people grieve when they encounter death. Responding with no emotion may well teach the child that emotional reaction is unacceptable.

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amypollick
Post 4

@anon263475: I am so sorry for your little girl. Suicide has to be one of the hardest things to explain to anyone -- adult or child.

Let me recommend you call your local Hospice chapter or clergyperson and ask about support groups for children who are friends of suicide victims. Also, if your child and the boy were at the same school, the school may be providing counseling on-site.

I'd say that probably the best way to explain it is to say, "People who commit suicide often have a lot of problems and they think they can't tell anyone about them, and they don't see any hope of their problems being solved, or their lives getting any better. So, they think this is the only solution. It's not, but that is what they thought at the time."

But I urge you to seek a support group for your child, or find someone who can talk to her about her feelings. God bless you all.

anon263475
Post 3

I could really do with some help in how to help my daughter threw the tragic loss of a friend of hers. She is only 13 and sadly, this boy took his own life two days ago.

I am trying my hardest to be there for her but I am also so saddened by it all and when she asks me why it had to happen I just don't know what to say. Any advice would be grateful.

panda2006
Post 2

When I was a small child, I actually had a pretty logical understanding of death, at least to the point that I understand it meant that a person who died was not coming back. Of course, I didn't experience many deaths of children, or people even close to my age, until I was in high school, so I did not experience the feeling of truly grieving the death of a friend until many other people in my life had died.

Even as a teenager, however, it was strange- particularly the feeling that if it could happen to someone else, it could happen to me. That feeling of mortality, of experiencing that for the first time, is the hardest part for kids, in my experience.

hollyhock
Post 1

Over the past three and a half years, we have experienced the deaths of several children in our community. The first was my second daughter's best friend. She died in a horrific farming accident. It was the most difficult thing I have ever had to do as a parent, to tell my children that their friend had been killed. Obviously, my children wanted all the details and although I tried to state them matter of factly, the siblings of the little girl who died also confided in my children what they witnessed. It was shocking, and turned our world upside down for a while. We still talk about their friend...as a matter of fact, she came up in a conversation just this morning. It helps my children to know that she isn't forgotten, that it's okay to talk about her still, after all this time. One year after that, another little girl we knew, died while playing on her swing set and our cousin lost a daughter to SIDS. The next year, a family in our community lost their daughter in a car accident near our home (again, they were friends with the siblings of this girl, and my husband was her teacher). Later, our friends lost their little boy due to an accident while he was bathing. My children played with this child almost every week at his aunt's home. This was a few days before other friends of ours lost her first baby during delivery. She was a teacher at our church and the kids were anxiously awaiting the birth of this baby. The baby's cousins are some of their close friends. Later that year another girl in our community died from meningitis (she was also a student of my husband's). Several months later, another friend of mine lost a baby during delivery. My children are friend's with her children and see them weekly.

To say the least, I've gained a lot of experience in this area. It is difficult, but I have found that one of the most important things to do is to keep the good memories alive. It helps the kids to know that they don't have to forget. These families will *never* forget. These families love to talk about their children and appreciate knowing that others haven't forgotten their children. Our children are a constant reminder to them of what could have been.

Teach your children that it's okay to talk to the family about their feelings and about their friend. It brings people together in their pain and is extremely healing for everyone involved. It's important to focus on the fact that life goes on as well.

Our cousin gave birth to a baby girl ten months after Naomi died of SIDS. Our dear little friend who was first killed, now has a set of twin brothers. And my friend who's first child was lost at birth, has just found out she is expecting twins! These are causes to rejoice. Joy still exists and it isn't betraying those who have died. In fact, we believe they are rejoicing with us when good things happen. If you are still...you can feel them. They are still very real to us, and they need to be lest we feel that we are supposed to forget and pretend that they never mattered. They still matter to us very much.

We have plans to make a memorial garden for them where we can put flowers and stepping stones with their names and such. We also talk about how happy it will be when we can see them again. They are okay and in a good, safe, happy place watching over us. Their world is very close to ours.

What happened to them and to their families and our family was very sad, but with time the sadness gives way to a conviction that they are not really gone. That is one thing we have all learned from these deaths. Our faith was tested and we have planted our feet firmly in it as we have come through the pain. You can't go over the pain or around it...but you can make it through it and it *does* ease up. But you will never forget and remembering becomes less and less painful with time, even though we still cry for them sometimes. I think we always will.

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