Finding the Words: How to Talk with Children and Teens about Death, Suicide, Homicide, Funerals, Cremation, and other End-of-Life Matters

Finding the Words: How to Talk with Children and Teens about Death, Suicide, Homicide, Funerals, Cremation, and other End-of-Life Matters

by Alan D. Wolfelt


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With this compassionate book by respected grief counselor and educator Dr. Alan Wolfelt, readers will find simplified and suitable methods for talking to children and teenagers about sensitive topics with an emphasis on the subject of death. Honest but child-appropriate language is advocated, and various wording and levels of explanation are suggested for different ages when discussing topics such as death in general, suicide, homicide, accidental death, the death of a child, terminal illness, pet death, funerals, and cremation. An ideal book for parents, caregivers, and counselors looking for an easy resource when talking to youths about death, this book can be used for any setting, religious or otherwise.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781617221897
Publisher: Companion Press
Publication date: 10/01/2013
Pages: 128
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD, is a speaker, a grief counselor, and the director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition. He is the author of numerous books on grief, including Companioning the Bereaved, Companioning the Grieving Child, Creating Meaningful Funeral Ceremonies, Healing the Bereaved Child, Healing Your Grieving Heart, Understanding Your Grief. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Read an Excerpt

Finding the Words

How to Talk with Children and Teens About Death, Suicide, Funerals, Homicide, Cremation, and Other End-of-Life-Matters

By Alan D. Wolfelt

Center for Loss and Life Transition

Copyright © 2013 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61722-189-7


Children's grief — why it's unique

Death changes children. Because they are still taking form, children are much more malleable than adults. Loss acts as a carving tool that helps shape them. Children look to others to help define them as they grow. With death they not only lose someone they love but what feels like a part of who they are.

After a death, a child's internal world shifts and is never the same. She must learn to adjust to living without everything that person brought to her life. The person who died most likely had a unique relationship with her. They shared intimacies that only the two knew about. She depended on the person for certain things, and she may be unsure of who will fulfill those needs now.

Adults provide stability for the child and make the world feel safe. Maybe a grandmother always believed in her granddaughter, even when others doubted her. With the death, she may have not only lost her grandmother but also an important source of self-assurance that kept her feeling steady. Her loss is doubled, intensifying her grief and mourning — and the closer the relationship, the more profound the grief.

Of course, more children and teens than we can imagine experience ambivalent, conflicted, or abusive relationships. In these cases, when a death occurs the young person typically mourns the lack of what she wishes she could or should have had in the relationship. Such conflicted relationships also create very profound grief and can result in a natural complication of the mourning process.

It's tempting to try to shelter children from grief and mourning. After all, as adults it's our job to keep them safe and protected. Yet we must remember, despite what messages we hear from others or within our culture, hurting is a necessary part of the journey on the way to healing. People never "get over" the death of a loved one. To some extent, they carry that feeling of loss with them forever. That's not to say that children cannot heal from the death of someone they love. By experiencing their grief and actively mourning, they can go on to live full, meaningful lives. Therefore, as parents and caregivers, we must help them mourn well so they can go on to live and love well.


No two people experience grief in the same way, and for children this is doubly so. Their age, maturity, and emotional, mental, and spiritual development dictate the shape and form of their grief. A preschooler might protest his loss by wetting the bed again, while a teenager might try to drown his pain by drinking or taking on other risky behaviors. It has been my longstanding belief that any child old enough to love is old enough to grieve. All kids grieve (except those who experience the tragedy of attachment disorder), regardless of age. They just do so differently.

Personal development plays a large role in determining how the child might express, or move through, his grief. The relationship with the person who died, the nature of the death, and the child's gender and personality also play major roles in how he will grieve and mourn. Of course, these are not the only influences on how a child will view or experience death. Past experiences with death, how those around him deal with the death, and his own perceptions about death also influence his grief process — and make it uniquely his.

Children and adults approach grief and mourning differently. Children tend to grieve in small spurts, showing sadness only occasionally. Or their grief manifests physically as headaches or stomachaches. Grief is more stretched out over time for children, since they take in different aspects of their loss as they grow. Big events, like high school graduation, can bring on a new time of grief.

That's why it is important to have several short, ongoing discussions about the death, over time. Letting grief rise up naturally, acknowledging it, then allowing it to descend for a time helps your child to cope with her loss in her own style.


Since development and age play such an important role in how children grieve and mourn, this book is broken down into three age groups:

Preschoolers — ages 3 to 5

School-agers — ages 6 to 11

Teenagers — ages 12 to 19

These groupings represent distinct developmental stages in children's lives. With that said, I do not believe children of the same age always grieve in the same way. It's important to see these age groupings as somewhat arbitrary. You may know a precocious five-year-old who is cognitively more akin to a seven- year-old or a young teen who has not yet developed the skill of abstract thinking. You know the child best, and it's your place to decide what fits for her and what doesn't. Trust your intuition and knowledge of who she is and how she operates emotionally, socially, cognitively, and spiritually and decide which category fits her best.

Researchers have studied the ways in which chronological age affects a child's response to loss. In general, these studies found that children five and under usually do not fully understand death, especially its finality. For children older than five, the studies are mixed. One found that children six and older understand that death is final, while another found that only children nine years and older do so. Factors such as familiarity with death, self-concept, and intelligence also play an important role in an individual child's understanding of death. For these reasons, defining how a child might respond to death simply by age is inaccurate. Therefore these age breakdowns are simply guidelines.


Due to their age, infants and toddlers demand special mention. Many adults think that because very young children are not completely aware of what is going on around them, they are not impacted by death. We must dispel this misconception. I say it simply: Any child old enough to love is old enough to mourn.

True, infants and toddlers are not developmentally mature enough to fully understand the concept of death. In fact, many children do not truly understand the inevitability and permanence of death until adolescence.

But understanding death and being affected by it are two very different things. When a primary caregiver dies, even tiny babies notice and react to the loss. They might not know exactly what happened and why, but they do know that someone important is now missing from their small worlds.


As anyone who has been around infants knows, babies quickly bond with their parents and other primary caregivers. In fact, studies have shown that babies just hours old recognize and respond to their mothers' voices. Many psychologists even believe that babies think they and their mothers are one and the same person for a number of months.

This powerful and exclusive attachment to mommy and daddy continues through most of the first year of life. When a parent dies, then, there is no question the baby notices that something is missing. She will likely protest her loss by crying more than usual, sleeping more or less than she did before, or changing her eating patterns.

Offer comfort

When they are upset, most infants are soothed by physical contact. Pick up the bereaved infant when he cries. Wear him in a front pack; he will be calmed by your heartbeat and motion. Give him a gentle baby massage. Talk to him and smile at him as much as possible.

And do not worry about spoiling him. The more you hold him, rock him, and sing to him, the more readily he will realize that though things have changed, someone will always be there to take care of him.

Take care of basic needs

Besides lots of love, an infant needs to be fed, sheltered, diapered, and bathed. Try to maintain the grieving baby's former schedule. But don't be surprised if she sleeps or eats more or less than usual. Such changes are her way of showing her grief. If she starts waking up several times a night, soothe her back to sleep. The most important thing you can do is to meet her needs — whatever they seem to be — quickly and lovingly in the weeks and months to come.


Like infants, bereaved toddlers mostly need our love and attention. They also need us to help them understand that though it is painful, grief is the price we pay for the priceless chance to love others. They need us to teach them that death is a normal and natural part of life.

Offer comfort and care

The bereaved toddler needs one-on-one care 24 hours a day. Make sure someone she loves and trusts is always there to feed her, clothe her, diaper her, and play with her. Unless she is already comfortable with a certain provider, now is not the time to put her in daycare.

Expect regressive behaviors from grieving toddlers. Those who slept well before may now wake up during the night. Independent children may now be afraid to leave their parents' side. Formerly potty-trained kids may need diapers again. All of these behaviors are normal grief responses. They are the toddler's way of saying," I'm upset by this death and I need to be taken care of right now." By tending to her baby-like needs, you will be letting her know that she will be taken care of and that she is loved without condition.

Model your own grief

Toddlers learn by imitation. If you mourn in healthy ways, toddlers will learn to do the same. Don't hide your feelings when you're around children. Instead, share them. Cry if you want to. Be angry if you want to. Let the toddler know that these painful feelings are not directed at him and are not his fault, however.

Sometimes you may feel so overwhelmed by your own grief that you can't make yourself emotionally available to the bereaved toddler. You needn't feel guilty about this; it's OK to need some "alone time" to mourn. In fact, the more fully you allow yourself to do your own work of mourning, the sooner you'll be available to help the child. In the meantime, make sure other caring adults are around to nurture the grieving toddler.

Use simple, concrete language

When someone a toddler loves dies, he will know that person is missing. He may ask for Mommy or Uncle Ted one hundred times a day. I recommend using the word "dead" in response to his queries.

Say, "Mommy is dead, honey. She can never come back." Though he won't yet know what "dead" means, he will begin to differentiate it from "bye-bye" or "gone" or "sleeping" — terms that only confuse the issue. Tell him that dead means the body stops working. The person can't walk or talk anymore, can't breathe, and can't eat. And while using simple, concrete language is important, remember that more than two-thirds of your support will be conveyed nonverbally.

Keep change to a minimum.

All toddlers need structure, but bereaved toddlers, especially, need their daily routines. Keeping mealtimes, bedtime, and bath time the same lets them know that their life continues and that they will always be cared for. And try not to implement other changes right away. Now is not the time to go from a crib to a bed, to potty train, or to wean from a bottle.

How children ages 3 to 5 typically respond to grief

Since preschool-aged children do not see a distinct line between real and imaginary, they may think of death as temporary or reversible or may equate it with sleeping. On television or video games, death is a common occurrence — often with the "dead" animal or person coming back to life! On the other hand, young children have often seen actual death up close, in the form of dead insects, wild animals, and small pets. So, death is a great mystery, and children perceive this at a young age.

Preschoolers are still building their vocabulary and their ability to communicate by expressing words. They may not understand these mixed feelings of grief, let alone know how to verbalize them. They need help naming these feelings. Preschoolers may also ask questions about the death over and over again to try to understand it. It's important to be honest and answer their questions truthfully.

Because they cannot express themselves in words easily, preschoolers may do so in play. They may reenact the death as a way of exploring their feelings and understanding of death. Don't be shocked by "death play." It's a perfectly natural way for a young child to integrate the reality of the death. Besides play, preschool children might express grief physically, as words are difficult to form for such big concepts. They might be irritable, explosive, or have "melt downs," or have a hard time sleeping. They will need extra physical comfort, as sometimes hugs and holding are better understood than words.

Also, young children are egocentric and assume they have control over what happens in their world. They may think a death is their fault. Maybe if they would have done what they were told to do or been "good," the death would not have happened. They may secretly blame themselves, causing erratic behaviors.

Finally, preschoolers, like toddlers, may regress. A child who had gained independence, like going off to preschool without separation anxiety, may lose it and become clingy. He may seek comfort in old habits that soothed him, like sucking his thumb or sleeping with his parents. He may start talking baby talk again and even revert back to needing diapers. Short-term regressive behaviors are normal and simply indicate his need for comfort.

How children ages 6 to 11 typically respond to grief

School-aged children have a clearer understanding of death. For the most part, they know death is permanent and unavoidable. However, death might still carry strong imaginative connotations and children may think of the person who died as a ghost, skeleton, or angel.

Children ages 10 and 11 have a more "adult" understanding of death. However, some see death as only happening to other people, not to them or their family. When it does, they are extra shocked and rattled.

Children in this age group continue to express their grief primarily through play. They may "hang back" socially and scholastically. They may act out because they don't know how else to handle their grief feelings, especially those of anger, anxiety, shame, guilt, sadness, and worry. Children of this age can harbor fears of their own death or others with whom they are close. School-aged children, especially those younger, may still worry about who will take care of them.

How children ages 12 to 19 typically respond to grief

Companioning a teenager demands special care. Death for teens is complicated, as it falls at a time when developmentally they are naturally gaining independence and separating from their parents and family. Teens still need comfort and companionship through death, but they might naturally resist the seeming sense of dependence it brings. Teens often turn toward friends, rather than family, for support. Don't assume they are getting their needs met by friends alone.

Teens understand death cognitively but are only beginning to grapple with it spiritually. They are just starting to explore the "why" questions about life and death. While teens understand death, they often do not have the ability to cope with death as an adult would. Death also goes against a teenage sense of invincibility, which can make teens question their understanding of how the world works. The shaking of this foundation can feel threatening and can cause confusion and anger. Teens may protest the loss by acting out and/or withdrawing from school, friends, family, and activities that bring meaning. They may test their own mortality by taking risks.


1. Accept the reality of the death.

2. Let yourself feel the pain of the loss.

3. Remember the person who died.

4. Develop a new self-identity.

5. Search for meaning.

6. Let others help you — now and always.

Teenagers often feel life has been unfair to them when a death occurs. A teen's normal egocentrism can cause her to focus exclusively on the effect the death has had on her and her future. Teens can adopt a "why me?" attitude about death and become overwhelmed with feelings that they don't know how to handle.

Adolescence is naturally stressful because of the developmental tasks teens must undertake. For the bereaved teen, this combination of normal challenges and the experience of grief can potentially be overwhelming. Don't be surprised if seemingly minor stresses make the bereaved teen very upset. She might cry or get angry because her locker is stuck or she misplaced a book. Have extra patience when companioning grieving teens.


Companioning children through grief


To companion children on a journey through grief and mourning is an important gift of healing. It takes wisdom and courage to step back and let the child lead. It is not always easy to observe a child's grief without feeling a need to pass judgment or command action. Above all, it takes patience because it is difficult to watch a child in pain without wanting to "fix it" or make it go away. The following guidelines will help you be a good companion to a child in grief.


Excerpted from Finding the Words by Alan D. Wolfelt. Copyright © 2013 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Center for Loss and Life Transition.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Mourning is essential to healing 2

Avoiding or suppressing grief is harmful-even to kids 2

Grief is a process, not an event 3

The tenets of companioning the bereaved 4

A note to you 5

Chapter 1 Children's grief-why it's unique 7

Exclusive features of childhood grief 8

Grief through the ages 9

Helping infants and toddlers when someone they love dies 10

How children ages 3 to 5 typically respond to grief 12

How children ages 6 to 11 typically respond to grief 14

How children ages 12 to 19 typically respond to grief 15

The six needs of mourning 15

Chapter 2 Companioning children through grief 17

Habits of a good companion 17

Let him lead 17

Be an observer 18

Encourage questions 18

Welcome her feelings 19

Be patient 19

Include her in ceremonies and conversations 20

Finding the right words-guidelines on how to talk to grieving children 21

Talk openly about death 21

Share your feelings 22

Be honest and direct 22

Avoid euphemisms 23

Teach what you believe 23

Give inviting, loving nonverbal cues 23

Attend to your own grief 24

Chapter 3 When a parent dies 27

Preschoolers-ages 3 to 5 27

School-agers-ages 6 to 11 32

Seeking help for complicated mourning 35

Teenagers-ages 12 to 19 36

Chapter 4 When a sibling dies 41

Preschoolers-ages 3 to 5 41

School-agers-ages 6 to 11 44

Recognizing "griefbursts" 46

Teenagers - ages 12 to 19 47

Chapter 5 When a grandparent dies 51

Preschoolers-ages 3 to 5 51

School-agers-ages 6 to 11 54

Teenagers-ages 12 to 19 57

Memory work techniques 57

What it means to die of natural causes or "old age" 59

Chapter 6 When a pet dies 61

Preschoolers-ages 3 to 5 61

School-agers-ages 6 to 11 64

Teenagers-ages 12 to 19 66

Chapter 7 When a friend or classmate dies 69

Preschoolers-ages 3 to 5 69

School-agers-ages 6 to 11 72

When death is sudden and traumatic 75

Teenagers-ages 12 to 19 77

Chapter 8 When someone dies by suicide 81

Preschoolers-ages 3 to 5 82

School-agers-ages 6 to 11 85

Teenagers-ages 12 to 19 88

Stigmatized deaths: suicide. AIDS, homicide 92

Chapter 9 When someone dies by homicide or manslaughter 93

Preschoolers-ages 3 to 5 94

Finding the words when someone goes missing 97

School-agers-ages 6 to 11 98

Teenagers-ages 12 to 19 101

Companioning when violent attacks happen at school or in the community 103

Chapter 10 When someone close has a terminal or life-threatening illness 105

Preschoolers-ages 3 to 5 106

School-agers-ages 6 to 11 109

Teenagers-ages 12 to 19 112

Chapter 11 When the child is dying 115

Preschoolers-ages 3 to 5 116

School-agers-ages 6 to 11 119

Teenagers-ages 12 to 19 122

Chapter 12 Attending a funeral or ceremony 125

Preschoolers-ages 3 to 5 126

School-agers-ages 6 to 11 129

Teenagers-ages 12 to 19 132

The language of funerals 136

A Final Word 137

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